Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Utopia and Revolution

(Mostly a disorganized discussion of Richard Stites’ superb Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution, by someone who is not a historian. Contains half-baked analogies to current events).

I’ve been on a Russian and Soviet History reading binge recently. (The fact that it’s the 100th anniversary of the October revolution is I think coincidental, but it probably helps increase the salience of the subject). Just a couple of months ago I picked up China Miéville’s October, his retelling of the story of the Russian Revolution, which I came across via Sheila Fitzpatrick’s review of several new books on the subject. I wanted to read a sympathetic perspective on the revolution (Miéville is a socialist), and I’ve often enjoyed Miéville’s novels, but I found this particular book flat and lifeless (though many reviews say otherwise, so take this with whatever amount of salt you prefer).

The problem is that despite Miéville’s sympathy for the revolution, the narrative feels like the story of any number of petty revolts rather than of one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. Reading it, one never gets a sense of why the revolution was so “revolutionary”, for lack of a better term. I expected more from a professional storyteller. I can think of several academic histories that are much more exciting and illuminating, even when they are less sympathetic to the aims of October; Figes’ A People’s Tragedy comes to mind. (For a more appreciative view of what Miéville was trying to do, see Henry Farrell’s review in Jacobin; I’m not persuaded that it works.)

Nevertheless, I guess I should thank Miéville’s book for pointing me towards an older work, Richard Stites’ 1989 book Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (free pdf via Monoskop). That book was fascinating – a genuinely immersive, extraordinary story of why the Russian revolution was much more than a series of protests and coups. Though Stites’ book is not about the political events of the time – it’s a study of Utopian experiments in Russia and the Soviet Union from the late 19th century to the early 1930s, not a recounting of the seizure of power of 1917 – it really gives you a feel for why people felt they were living through a most revolutionary time. And, despite the obvious and enormous differences in context between Russia in 1917 and today, I found many interesting analogies to current cultural trends, so the book seems worth discussing. (Warning: long).

I. Iconoclasm and allure of destruction

Like all important political terms, the term revolution is contested; we don’t always agree about what counts as a revolution, just as we don’t always agree on what counts as a democracy. And lots of events are conventionally called revolutions, many of which have little impact on world history. But the Russian Revolution, like the French or the American, has a good claim to represent a paradigmatic case of the phenomenon. One could attribute this to the fact that the revolution, like the American or the French, led to the birth of a new form of government – the Leninist one-party state with explicitly socialist commitments, a form which proved enduring (it still lives on in China, where the CPC sees itself as the rightful heir of October) and was attractive to many people for much of the second half of the twentieth century (see Seva Gunitsky’s excellent book Aftershocks for more on this point). But there is more to it than that.

Jack Goldstone once mentioned in a review article that great revolutions have a “fractal” quality, where “social order breaks down on multiple scales simultaneously,” from the family to the town to the city to the national government and across many social institutions. I’ve always found this idea quite useful for thinking about what distinguishes a simple revolt (where a normative breakdown is restricted to say, the national government institutions) from a big revolutionary upheaval. It certainly applied to the Russian revolution, where everything – family norms, clothing, architecture and arts, cities and town planning, public monuments, religion – seemed to be up for negotiation simultaneously.

This breakdown of normative order at every scale manifested itself in the first place in the iconoclastic destruction of the past. Iconoclasm – the destruction of symbols of the hated ancien regime – was of course not something unique to the Russian revolution. Every self-respecting revolutionary movement pulls down the statues of the defeated former rulers, changes the names of cities, and so on. (One also thinks here of movements to remove statues of offensive figures, or rename buildings, happening right now). But there was a longer and more radical tradition of iconoclasm in Russia; already in the 19th century, “nihilists” (that’s what they called themselves) had argued for “the destruction of everything” (Bakunin’s phrase) - “the temples, the shelters, the forms, and the Gods of the old order, so that not one stone would remain” (p. 69). And in 1917 this “pan-destructionism” (Stites’ word) really got going all over, fuelled by new ideas of “unparalelled negativism” (p. 69). Some of these were very funny:
In 1920, the “nothingists” (nichevoki) unveiled their manifesto of “revolutionary hoboism” whose main command was to write, read, speak, and print nothing. In the realm of thought, nihilist spokesmen of the Revolution turned their guns on philosophy, which was seen to be the quintessential expression of the bourgeoisie as religion was of the gentry. The most extreme of these currents, Enchmenism, negated mind, spirit, and psyche altogether. These were to wither away in the future “world commune” of languageless people run by a Revolutionary Scientific Soviet. (p. 69)
(One wonders how much of this was entirely serious, and how much just done for the fun of it).

To be sure, much iconoclastic behaviour had little to do with the theories of the revolutionary intelligentsia. For example, peasants throughout Russia burned down manors, broke statues, and “pulveriz[ed] musical instruments” (p. 62), not because they were actuated by a desire to build something entirely new, or in any way interested in avant-garde ideas about the need to destroy the old in order to build the new world, but simply as the rejection of “a way of life repugnantly and bewilderingly different from that of peasants” (p. 63).

Yet in the cities, and among intellectuals, destruction could be gleefully celebrated, though usually as the prelude to the building of the new. Here’s V. D. Alexandrovsky, a “teen-age proletarian poet”, in 1918:
Blow up,
Smash to pieces
The Old World!
In the heat of battle of the Universal Struggle
By the glow of flames
Show no mercy –
The bony body of destiny! (p. 72)
This sort of thing lasted for a while; in 1927 Sergei Tretyakov could still write:
All for combat.
Force is best.
A bullet in the brain
Of Basil the Blest.
Smash all the icons
And the signs They have made.
Explode the Iverskaya
With a hand grenade. (p. 70)
Many young people seem to have been caught up in the exhilaration of the iconoclastic destruction of past culture (not just statues). The deliberate outrageousness of the Russian futurists, in particular, reminds me a bit of the desire of some people today to smash “political correctness” and the nostrums of what had been, until very recently, the “establishment” culture. Mayakovsky was the chief troll, an interesting, accomplished poet who spoke of his desire to point “‘Comrade Mauser’ at the orators of the world, [and to put] Raphael and Rastrelli against the wall” (p. 70), while his colleagues in the futurist movement were sort of the “alt-left” of the time, always a bit more outrageous than the more pragmatic Bolsheviks who actually had to worry about governing. But of course Russian revolutionaries weren’t the only people caught up in the fun of destroying the old (and Stites is good at recognizing that there was some fun in it); the impulse seems to have been pretty common among intellectuals of the early 20th century. Here’s the Italian Marinetti (another futurist poet, and later fascist, in 1909): “We want to demolish museums, libraries, [and for good measure] fight morality, feminism, and all the opportunist and utilitarian cowardice” (p. 70).

One of the things that struck me reading Stites was the degree to which iconoclasm was partly driven by a kind of “purity impulse”: the desire to cast out the “pollution” of the old, built on the backs of millions of exploited and unjustly treated anonymous people. This was especially evident in what was called “Makhaevism” (a current of thought identified with Jan Wacław Machajski, where the anti-intellectual impulse to destroy all existing culture was especially strong). For example, Machajski wrote that the masses should “rise up at the first opportunity and destroy and annihilate to the last iota the accursed accumulations of wealth which you have helped to create through the ages and which the masters have always seized entirely for themselves.” His point was not that the wealth and achievements of the past should be transferred to the proletariat, but that they should be destroyed; this was a purely leveling impulse, driven by the thought that the past was polluted by its complicity with injustice, and hence it was better to start from zero. As one of the followers of Machajski put it, “All history in fact … was ‘one endless, uninterrupted chain of violence and fraud’” (p. 74) and hence not worth preserving.

I don’t mean to give the impression that these sorts of feelings were widespread. Iconoclastic impulses also met anti-iconoclastic resistance; top Bolsheviks (and many other people) weren’t keen on destroying everything. Beyond destroying major symbols of czarism, they (Lunarcharsky in particular) preferred to preserve the treasures of the past - to open the Russian patrimony to the masses in those museums that the futurists wanted to destroy. But a pervasive distrust of past culture fed nevertheless into anti-intellectual attitudes that would play a recurrent role in the early decades of the Soviet regime, with its distrust of “bourgeois specialists”.

In any case, the new, avant-garde alternatives to the culture of the past weren’t always all that popular; despite the best efforts of the futurists and the Proletkult movement, much of the proletariat remained stubbornly attached to more traditional forms of culture and did not show much inclination to want to destroy it completely. For example, though there were a number of conductorless orchestras at the time (like the famous Persimfans, which was actually super cool – one of the more successful experiments of the time in egalitarian organization), they tended to play “Beethoven rather than Schoenberg” as Stites puts it; and though styles of dress changed, few people showed any inclination to follow the more eccentric ideas about appropriately revolutionary dress, like nudism.1 This of course does not mean nothing changed (Stites makes some very good points about, for example, the use of egalitarian language and the changing forms of address during the revolution), and at any rate some utopian ideas had enormous influence even if they were never very popular in their “undiluted” form.

II. A Science-fictional revolution

One of the more interesting things about the Russian revolution that I learned from this book is the extent to which it was a “science fiction” revolution. This was a revolution were a senior Bolshevik – Bogdanov – wrote a sci-fi novel called Red Star about a communist utopia on Mars (apparently a big influence on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy), and where the “Anarcho-Biocosmists” proposed a plan to launch a social revolution “in interplanetary space but not upon Soviet territory”, apparently seriously (p. 55; this before people had even reached orbit!). And of course there were also the God-builders (I wrote a bit about them in my post on the Lenin cult here), whose attitude towards science and technology also had science-fictional echoes.

The original cover of "Red Star"
The original cover of “Red Star”
Biocosmist” ideas were among the more interesting ones. They were basically a version of transhumanism (in fact wikipedia says they influenced later transhumanists), and some of the people involved were surprisingly influential. Many of them took inspiration from Nikolai Fedorov, “a librarian and speculative theologian who never published a book”:
Fedorov (1829-1903) … combined certain features of Russian Orthodoxy and tsarist ideology with an extravagant belief in cosmic possibilities. The world of his vision, converted to Orthodoxy under the tsar in Moscow, spoke a single language (recovered from pre-Babel times by a congress of scientific linguists) and lived in rural communes, working in factories in winter and fields in summer. The social bond was faith and fraternity, not materialism or equality, since Fedorov opposed both socialism and capitalism. Each commune was situated around a cemetery with a model of the Moscow Kremlin at the center. The rule of communal life was Psychocracy: mind control, open diaries, public confession and penance, and the regulation of sexuality. Global security was provided by a Godloving Army and a Pacification Fleet.
Fedorov’s vague scientific-mystical Utopia was designed for a specific set of tasks which he called “the common mission” of mankind: victory over death, resurrection of all the dead, and the settlement of outer space. The syncretic quality of Fedorov’s dream generated a school of disciples in the Soviet period, loosely know as the Biocosmists, whose slogan was “Immortalism and Interplanetism.” Beyond their study and discussion circles, figures as diverse as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the rocket scientist), Leonid Krasin (who designed Lenin’s mausoleum), and V. K. Vernadsky, the earth scientist, were said to have been in Fedorov’s orbit at one time or another. The most consistent of the Fedorovites was Valerian Muraviev, a man with an extraordinarily checkered career even for those times, a fanatical Bolshevik, and a devout Fedorov adept. He combined the ideas of his master with those of Frederick Taylor … The cult of Fedorov in the Russian Revolution, a seemingly impossible idea, illustrates precisely a vagrant mentality that some have chosen to call the “crankish” side of the Revolution but which was really a millenarianism and a utopianism fed by serious erudition of a special sort and by the unbounded Promethean belief in man’s ability to transform nature and reverse its laws (pp. 169-170).
You couldn’t make this up. (Incidentally, this clarifies for me some references in Hannu Rajaniemi’s excellent Jean Le Flambeur series of post-singularity novels about the “Great Common Task”). In any case, this sort of thing, funny as it sounds (I find it both horrifying and appealing in about equal parts), is a useful reminder that the impulse to conquer death through technology is not something that was just invented by Silicon Valley rationalists, but an idea with a more complicated history. There’s a line from Fedorov to Thiel and Musk!

Other “science-fictional” movements were a bit more down to earth. Stites notes the immense popularity of Taylorism and Fordism during the first decades of the revolution. The epigraph to chapter 7 is from Zamyatin’s famous dystopian novel We, where the main character comments that “this Taylor was undoubtedly the greatest genius of the ancients”. This is of course novelistic irony, but many people at the time seem to have taken the Taylorist message message as gospel. Consider Alexei Gastev, one of the main proponents of Taylorism in Russia at the time. Gastev was a poet of the machine, who in a 1919 work described in a celebratory vein what to Zamyatin was obviously a dystopian nightmare:
a mechanized, standardized world, in a literal sense, with production ruled by self-regulating and self-correcting machines, joined throughout the world in a machine city—that is, a single unbroken mechanized civilization stretching around the globe. All production people (not workers now) are reduced to a single level of skill—the middle range – and the machines are transformed into managers and decision makers, with production people adapting themselves to the rhythm of the machine. With this reduction and standardization of the work force and production space comes the uniformization of gestures, language, and thoughts—a human geography of symbols and movements copied from the machine, a single mode of speech, a standardized catalog of thoughts, and a unified collection of meals, of housing, and of sexual and spiritual life. Man is to become an anonymous production unit, an A, B, C, a 324, or a 075, “soulless and devoid of personality, emotion, and lyricism – no longer expressing himself through screams of pain or joyful laughter, but rather through a manometer or taxometer. Mass engineering will make man a social automation.” (p. 152)
Gastev went on to found the Central Institute of Labor, which he considered a “work of art” (management as artistic creation!), and where he tried out his theories about the training of workers:
The German Expressionist writer Ernst Toller, who visited [an institute office] in the 1920s, described a hundred identical gray benches, with a hundred men and women trainees in identical costumes obeying instructions conveyed by electronic beeps of machine. They approached the work benches in columns, performed tests in unison, graduated in difficulty. Their hammer-teacher was a machine to which their arm was strapped until they were able to work independently. A “cyclogram” photographed their work and recorded their progress by means of moving lights. There were no books, no theories, no meetings—only practical work, from simple to complex, in a course lasting three to six months. The purpose: to study “the human machine’ and to create new people by means of social engineering (p. 154; incidentally, Gastev more or less invented the term “social engineering”).
Graduates of the institute would go on to train workers elsewhere, combating laziness, apathy, low productivity and the like. (This was no joke – the institute even won major Soviet decorations in the 1920s). Apparently Gastev was warm and engaging, motivated by a vision of social equality (but a transhumanist one, where people would eventually meld with machines), and Stites seems to have a weakness for him. And there is a clear aesthetic dimension to Gasteevism: a “sparkling and kinetic vision of a vast continent unified by steel, electricity, and asphalt, of bright and throbbing machinery glinting in the sunlight as it labored to refashion a world, and of workers trained by industrial metronomes into something resembling a huge and elegant corps de ballet tending that machinery and deriving its graceful precision from it” (p. 155). Stites claims that from the perspective of the 30s, this was a “vision of hope”; he’s not entirely wrong.

III. Productivity Cults

In any case, the early 20s seem to have been fertile ground for management fads in the Soviet Union – as long as they promised productivity and sounded scientific. Given the historical period, this meant mostly Taylorism and Fordism (though non-hierarchical ideas also had a hearing in some places); but one imagines that if holacracy or whatever had been around then, there would have been people preaching its virtues. Yet the magical aura of Taylorism and Fordism was not restricted to intellectuals. Though many workers did in practice resent Taylorism and Fordism in their workplaces, Ford in particular seems to have been briefly an object of popular veneration, an emblem of promised wealth and abundance:
Workers were seen holding banners bearing Ford’s name in parades along with those of Soviet leaders. Peasants called their tractors fordzonishkas, and deep in a Volga province village, peasants harnessed a wedding cart to a Fordson decked out in red bunting. Some peasants were unable to pronounce the name Ford (calling him Khord instead), but they saw him as a magical persona, asking the journalist Maurice Hindus if he was richer than the tsars and was the most clever American. They longed to gaze upon him personally (pp. 148-149).
This is silly, but there were more interesting manifestations of this cult of Taylorism and Fordism. I was especially taken with the aptly named “League of Time,” whose “main concern was to ‘introduce scientific principles not only into man’s economic activity or production but into all organized activity or work’ – the army, the school, all of social life” (p. 156). Though nothing at this time was totally independent of the government, the league was in many respects like a civil society group for productivity enthusiasts:
At the grassroots appeared spontaneous cells or circles called “Time” or “Productivity.” Members (called elvisty after the initials L.V., Liga and “Vremya,” and sometimes Notisty), wore L.V. buttons and carried chronocards; some of them displayed oversized wristwatches as the emblem of their struggle – a poignant symbol in a land where less than a million watches and clocks were produced in 1928. (p. 157)
They apparently had some power, though, since members
eagerly ferreted out “tardy embezzlers of time,” including respected workers and officials, who were reprimanded and fined. A storm of criticism was unleashed against lateness and bad organization. Timeists poked their faces into every conceivable kind of enterprise and operation to uncover inefficiency and sloth as well as to reorganize and teach. Brigades marched into railroad stations to rearrange the furniture (at the Kazan Station in Moscow, for example, a passenger had to walk the entire length of the terminal three times in order to buy a ticket, check bags, and board train). At a Moscow factory, a time team reduced the period for distributing wages to 337 workers from thirty-nine hours to one hour and ten minutes. Speeches and articles pleaded with workers and managers to save time, conserve energy, and use space rationally. Worker’s clubs held court trials of machines, workbenches, and forges in order to prove that these were “innocent” in work stoppages and that poor work habits were guilty. Even in the country, cows were “tried” to determine who was responsible for low yields of milk. A virtual craze for efficiency erupted in the economy (p. 157)
"Advertisement suggesting that 'A Human Being Is Only Human with a Watch.'" Image number 26 in the book.
Advertisement suggesting that ‘A Human Being Is Only Human with a Watch.’” Image number 26 in the book.

As you might expect, they were not much loved:
the Timeists were considered a nuisance by administrators. Komsomols who lived by League principles were often criticized by their comrades as “red-tapeists,” egoists, violators of the collective spirit, and super bureaucrats. Technical, managerial, and government people accused them of dilettantism, excessive and uninformed demands, and of being a menace to competent professionals. In any case, the League was not very successful in realizing Kerzhentsev’s dream: to teach all Soviet citizens “spontaneous self-discipline.” Instead it pitted a legion of enthusiasts and busybodies against uninterested citizens (p. 158).
And so they were suddenly dissolved in 1926. But I must admit that I found them endearing, despite the fact that I would almost certainly resent them in practice. There’s something appealing about living an organized, productive life, without wasting time in pointless meetings (the Timeists really hated pointless meetings. I sympathize, having sat through my share of them) or boring speeches. And there’s something sweetly naive (but not altogether wrong) in their embrace of “good time habits” as part of what makes a society productive, and their generally “civilized” methods for fostering such habits contrast favourably with the brutality of the Stalinist labor system in the 1930s (as Stites notes).

III. Communist religiosity

Almost everyone who knows anything about the Russian revolution knows that the Bolsheviks were atheists (complications introduced by God-builders aside), and that they persecuted religion (though the extent of this persecution varied greatly over time). What I did not know was the degree to which the early years of the revolution featured actual debate among believers and unbelievers, mostly organized by the League of the Militant Godless:
Since the population was low in literacy, preaching the Godless word directly seemed to hold out great promise for the enthusiasts of enlightening atheism. In 1923 big debates were held in every district of Petrograd. In Vladimir, 2,000 listeners heard a six hour debate between an atheist and a priest on the theme: “Is there a God?” Another in Pereyaslavl lasted two days and was attended by 3000. In both, according to Soviet sources, the priests were defeated and they deserted the cloth. The proletarians of Moscow, in spite of their hostility to religion, jammed the auditoriums to hear speakers like the Archbishop Vvedensky. But the Bolsheviks did not always win these debates. [Maurice] Hindus met a priest who had debated against the Godless, asking his opponent why man, if so powerful, had not invented sunshine, rain, or stars. The answer: nature created them. Question: who made nature? Nature, like a watch or a revolution, had to have a maker. Answer: Nature made itself. Result: public laughter and the victory of the priest. In 1924 “Russia teemed with talk of religion,” debates being for a while the chief outdoor diversion, according to Hindus, a native speaker who visited Russia many times. Atheist preachers hit the circuit like American parsons on the Bible Belt; like them, many were sons of rural folk, in their case armed with scientific miracles and blasphemy. A singularly unimaginative atheist sailor tried to keep the faithful out of church by buttonholeing them at the door and reading to them about isoceles triangles (p. 107).
(I could easily imagine a communist version of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris at home in this environment). This anti-evangelical fervor was a bit of a fad, sustained partly by the desire of some to fit in with the new regime, and it would not last. But for a few years at least it seemed to be quite widespread:
The country was covered with a network of seminars, study groups, evening and correspondence courses, reference points and home-guides such as “Teach Yourself to Be Godless.” Godlessness was a mark of culture among adherents to the regime, and all higher educational institutions included atheist courses. There was even an All-Union Anti-religious University of the Air [I love that name!]. Since the majority of schoolteachers were still religious and since the teaching of atheism in school was not required in the 1920s (although the teaching of religion was forbidden of course), the burden of anti-religious propaganda fell very heavily upon the League [of the Militant Godless] and its supporters. And since the bulk of its themes were couched in rational, historical, and scientific terms, one must wonder at the effectiveness of the anti-religious propaganda network so acclaimed by its organizers and so defamed by its enemies. But one can hardly doubt the zeal and enthusiasm that went into this quasi-missionary crusade against the faith (p. 107).
"A. Apsit's "To Our Deceived Brothers" of 1918.
“A. Apsit’s “To Our Deceived Brothers” of 1918.
From what Stites says it seems the League was not particularly successful; most peasants, in particular, did not take to the godless gospel. But at least the League had a reasonably liberal approach to conversion. (Other revolutionary groups were much less tolerant). In any case, the degree to which various religious groups could organize at the time and preach their various visions of society was surprising to me. This freedom was fragile, and would disappear completely in the 1930s, but in the early 1920s many Christian groups (in particular so-called “sectarians”, groups considered heretic by the Orthodox church) could and did compete with the Communist party for the hearts and minds of the faithful:
Another movement of the 1920s became – at least for awhile and on a limited scale – a rival “religion of communism.” This was sectarian Christianity. The Sectarians were vibrant in their faith and in their conscious emulation of Bolshevik codes and rituals in order to compete with them, a practice that Bolshevik commentators found both engaging and annoying. Party officials observed that the sects were spiritually vital and attracted converts by their sobriety, mutuality, charity, and joyous song – a combination that Bolshevik Godbuilders dreamed of. The Baptists of Kursk Province attracted followers because of their model behavior, genuine brotherhood, relevance to life, and the unabashed prayers to Jesus in time of joy and woe. Perm Evangelists, copying the Bolshevik parallel feasts, launched a Day of Youth, a Festival of Sisters (for women’s equality), and religious texts set to revolutionary and church melodies. Novgorod Sectarians held concerts full of spontaneous singing and “love evenings” that fused the revolutionary concept of comradeship with Christian motifs of brotherhood in clean, sober and highly organized settings, avoiding both the wild drunkenness of village feasts and the banality of Bolshevik events.
Commentators were astonished at the frankly modern and syncretic methods of the Sectarians. Socialist imagery was freely adopted in slogans of justice, solidarity, and equality, in agitprop campaigns to enlist youth, and in organizational names such as Bapsomol (or Baptomol) and Christomol to rival the Komsomol. They held meetings and challenged other religions to friendly competitions. On May Day in Saratov Province, Baptists launched a Day of Classless Solidarity with Brothers in Christ and a two week campaign against biblical illiteracy. Almost every Bolshevik method of reaching the masses was imitated, including sheftsvo. Some Sectarians, grateful to the regime for having lifted the onerous persecution by the Orthodox Church, seemed to want some kind of merger between Bolshevik economic forms and a vibrant sectarian Christianity, infused with brotherhood, equality, and harmony (p. 121).
The influence went both ways; Bolsheviks also seem to have borrowed some ideas from these groups. Certainly they were quite aware of the power of ritual, and attempted to produce “counter-rituals”, from “Octobering” (instead of baptism) to “Red Weddings and “Red Funerals,” but with decidedly mixed outcomes. Most of these rituals were too boring, or too little rooted in meaningful traditions, to gain a footing even in the revolutionary environment of the 1920s, though some were popular for a time. And in any case, the success of the sectarians at “free conversion” may have had more to do with their exemplary behaviour than with any particular ritual forms:
The Sectarians were more successful than the Bolsheviks in arousing genuine emotion and commitment, and their conversion record was impressive. The Bolsheviks wondered why this was so and urged activists to emulate the methods of the sectarian groups. But the secret of the Sectarians’ success was not, of course, the forms of ritual and propaganda. It was their transparent faith and moral power. They preached no hatred against class enemies and opened their doors to people of all ethnic origins, sexes, classes, and nationalities. Their charity was unabashed and unlimited, and most of all uninhibited by ideological and political animosity (p. 121).
The similarities between Bolshevism and religion have long been noted, and certainly the search for ritual, the devotion of its adherents, and the vision of a total transformation of society make the parallels plausible. Stites nevertheless disagrees:
Because of certain outward features of Bolshevism – and other communist movements of our century – commentators have often called it a religion. In the 1920s, Fueloep-Miller remarked that Bolshevism taught science but was not a science, that it fought religion while being like one. In our time, Jacques Ellul has said, “the Russians have gone furthest in creating a ‘religion’ compatible with Technique.” These judgements are misleading. Maurice Hindus – writing in the 1920s – was more perceptive. Bolshevism, while containing many of the outward attributes of a faith, he observed, was actually a nonfaith because it was not forgiving, possessed no deity, exalted science and nature, and possessed a “revolutionary” system of ethics instead of a humane one. It lacked beauty, dignity, and spirit. Berdyaev in the 1930s emphasized its lack of inward drama and depth, its weakness in religious psychology, and its pedantry. Mao Zedong, a major communist of our time, put it very succinctly and honestly: “Marxism-Leninism has no beauty, nor has it any mystical value. It is only extremely useful” (p. 122).
I am less sure about the value of this particular judgment, though some of this is mere semantics. If you think doctrinal content or mystical experience, belief in a deity or a particular ethical orientation, are definitionally part of anything that can count as “religion”, then fine, Bolshevism (and Marxism-Leninism in general) is not one (Godbuilders excepted, perhaps). But if you think, as I do, that strong interaction rituals are more important than specific beliefs for religious practices, it’s harder to deny that many aspects of communist practice were religious, starting with the cults of many communist leaders, as Stites himself sometimes suggests. In any case, a purely aesthetic definition of religion (does it have beauty? Is it humane?) seems less than adequate to the actual variety of religious experience in the world.

IV. High and Low Modernisms

Stites argues that the Stalin era – starting sometime in the late 20s – was the end of the “utopian moment” in the Russian revolution. While Lenin had been ambivalent about most utopian experiments (and there are many more described in the book than I’ve mentioned even in this very long post – the book is super readable!), he was not openly hostile to most of them as long as they did not amount to genuine opposition, and in any case the relative pluralism of the NEP period had provided a certain amount of space for lots of crazy ideas. (This space was always precarious, and it had definite limits, but it existed). By contrast, once Stalin had consolidated his position in the late 1920s, he “began an emphatic repudiation of all Utopian currents and humanistic experiments” (p. 225).

In Stites’ telling, Stalin was unremittingly hostile to egalitarianism, visionary fantasy, or anything that smacked of utopia. Yet when we consider the perils of utopia, we usually think of the Stalin era as exhibit number one for the prosecution, with the human disasters of collectivization and forced industralization, the introduction of full central planning, and ultimately the endless search for enemies and saboteurs during the Great Terror. In the standard view, Stalinism is what happens when Utopian plans meet human reality.

There’s no real contradiction here, of course. Stalinism is the classic example of what James C. Scott called “High Modernism.” It belongs to the family of what Stites calls “administrative utopia”, with its emphasis on order and organization and its rejection of spontaneous and autonomous action; its horrific results came from the fact that it was coercively imposed on a generally unwilling population (especially in the countryside). To be sure, many people adapted the best they could, and some found fulfillment in participating in its grand projects (“make the USSR great”); one only has to read about the creation of Magnitogorsk, for example, described so amazingly in Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain to understand some of its appeal. And perhaps one can say that Stalinism was utopian less because of its plans (which were understood by many to be pragmatic steps towards socialism), but because of its hubris, its moral and epistemic self-certainty.

But if Stalinism was the classic example of high modernism, perhaps we can call the many utopian experiments that flourished (sometimes precariously, and often not for long) during the first decade of the Russian revolution examples of “low” modernism – modernism from below rather than above. Many of these would probably have had awful effects if scaled up and implemented coercively. (One only has to think of the many urban visions described by Stites, with their lack of privacy, communal kitchens, children raised in separate areas, and omnipresent piped music to recoil in horror). But many remained endearing and interesting as long as they did not attempt to impose themselves on the unwilling, and would not have been out of place in the “framework for utopia” of Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

These utopian experiments were also modernisms, founded on the rejection of past, even if a few also drew on older Russian practices (e.g., the egalitarian traditions of the artel). Many were dubious or crazy – from people talking about dressing in paper clothing to experiments with radical models of the family – but I was struck by the optimistic sense of experimentation that pervaded them, and do not feel like there’s much point in condemning people who came up with these ideas or bought into them as naive or deluded. (In any case many of these people would suffer greatly under Stalinism). These were genuine Millian “experiments in living,” and it seems to me a liberal society should very much make space for them.

Stites ends the book on an elegiac tone:
Utopianism is often naive, innocent, and childlike. But what virtue is more admired in the whole catalogue of human art and sensibility than childlike enthusiasm, innocence, and spontaneous love and acceptance? What is more lamented than our loss of youth, romance, openness to change, thirst for adventure, and the absence of refined callousness and cold sense of “reality?” These characteristics of the Utopian imagination appeal to every generation that discovers it; it is the recurring vision and hope for the “good place” even if it is “no place” – for the better world or even for the one world. The warming springtime of human hope does not give in to the wintry smiles of the cynic and the realist; it blossoms and it perishes in the sad autumnal winds. And then it is born again – for ever and ever (p. 253).
We know this story ends badly, and perhaps would have ended badly under any reasonably likely set of circumstances. The “low” version of modernism could also be destructive (it is, after all, founded on the rejection of the past), and in any case the difference between appealing low modernism and horrific high modernism is often simply a position of sufficient power. But I find myself drawn to a line that Sheila Fitzpatrick, in her book on Lunacharsky (The Commissariat of Enlightenment) attributes to Carlyle that encapsulates my feelings about these utopian movements:
As Thomas Carlyle (contemplating the sky-blue coat which Robespierre had made for the festival of the Supreme Being and wore on the day of his execution) wrote in his history of the French Revolution, “O Reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that?”

  1. Yes, this was a thing! In Moscow! Stites: “Believing that the only democratic and egalitarian apparel was the human skin itself, members [of the ‘Down with Shame’ group] demonstrated this belief by exhibiting their nakedness in public. Evenings of the Denuded Body were held in Moscow in 1922. Later there were marches and processions in Moscow and Kharkov and the occupation of trolley cars by the nudists who wore nothing but scarlet sashes bearing their device—to the amazement of onlookers and to the annoyance of the police who arrested them” (p. 135).


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  2. Off Topic. I am sure you have read the news of the recent events in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I enjoyed your post of Thursday, January 29, 2015 "The Saudi Monarchy as a Family Firm".

    I have written to Professor Herb, on whose work you based that post: "Dear Professor Herb: I have read some of your work on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I found it quite enlightening. The upheavals of the last couple of days, including the very dramatic arrests, are quite confusing to me. I hope you can provide the interested public with some expert commentary on the situation.

    Prof. Marquez: I would like your input as well.

    I will read your post on the Soviet Union off-line. It is a subject that fascinates me. We traveled to Russia this past spring. It was very interesting.

    1. Yes, I've been following the news there with interest - though I'm not sure I have much to say about it. Seems that the king there is upending the sort of system I had discussed in my post...