Louis Proyect’s lousy project

For those on the left who follow political blogs, one of the more indefatiguable voices is that of Louis Proyect. For reasons unfathomable, Louis seems to have a fixation with John Wight, of this parish.

A recent article entitled “The social conservatism of the Putinite left” caught my attention due to the following sentiment:

All of a sudden I had an epiphany. People like Kit Knightly, John Wight and Mike Whitney are social conservatives. When Knightly defends the Russian Orthodox Church from “orgy-like protests”, I feel like I am listening to Glenn Back complaining about Lady Ga-Ga. Where do these people come from?
[…] These kinds of people give me the heebie-jeebies. Maybe that’s because I was a bohemian before I became a radical. I am attracted to deviants. I was a fan of male prostitute and petty thief (and distinguished playwright) Jean Genet long before I read Karl Marx. When I read Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1961, that was the kind of person I wanted to get to know …

Below the line on the same article there is an hilarious comment from someone called Pete Glosser, who seems to utterly lack any sense of critical self awareness:

I say that as someone who personally shook hands with Genet and William Burroughs in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in 1968 and who was deeply stirred by Ginsberg’s poetry and his charismatic presence during that period.

That is nice for him, I once met the Wurzels. They do make I larff. If I am lucky I hope I may one day meet the Chuckle Brothers. To me, to you.

It seems that for Louis, and many others who were formerly active on the radical left, they have given up on actually changing the world, and instead they just want to critique capitalism in the company of those whom they feel a cultural affinity with. Socialism has become an “identity” that they use for self-definition, not a collective project for real world political change.

Let us be clear, there is no necessary link between being culturally avant garde and being politically progressive. This can be verified by moment’s reflection upon the political views of such Twentieth Century literary and artistic giants as TS Elliot, Ezra Pound, Henry Williamson, Wyndham Lewis, or FT Marinetti.

The cultural avant garde, bohemianism and what Louis bizarrely calls being a“deviant” may be rewarding, and even transcendant, it can enrich and empower lives and imaginations, and of course art which exists “in the public square” is always received in a collective cultural context, and is therefore capable of interaction with progressive politics. Avant garde art can also be pretentious shit. How Louis can see anything progressive in the jejune antics of Pussy Riot gratuitously offending the views of Russian Christians is a mystery to me.

In any event, it is not art, but collective organisation and building communities of solidarity that are the bedrock of socialism. Louis’s celebration of rather individualistic self expression has more affinity to liberalism than socialism.

It is also worth reflecting that collectivism and social solidarity is not only delivered by forces like the trade unions, and the social democratic left, but also from churches, Mosques and other faith organizations. While Louis fulminates against “social conservatism” it might be worth reflecting why Ted Cruz is supported by many blue collar voters, and how it is that GOP has managed to exploit culture wars to build a base among what Americans would call “middle class” voters.

Louis’s oeuvre is typified by pompous and prolix discourses upon matters of utter obscurity. I opened his blog today,and I quote the first paragraph randomly selected:

It would appear that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development informs not only Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule” but four articles I recently read that are critical of Vivek Chibber’s “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital”. This might lead one to believe that no matter how failed a project the Fourth International was, Trotsky’s ideas remain current especially for scholars grappling with the Eurocentrism of Political Marxism, a tendency that includes Vivek Chibber as one of its most truculent spokesmen.

Remind me to bring that up at my union meeting next week.

While Louis has consciously broken from the organizational forms of Trotskyism, he still holds with the essentially Trotskyist project of promoting and defending a counter-hegemonic belief system and interpreting the world through a largely self-referential and textually based polemic; which is resilient at ignoring aspects of reality that contradict it. As I wrote elsewhere about Trotskyism:

Concrete and specific situations in the modern world are often judged by reference to Trotsky’s writings about related but different circumstances more than half a century ago.There is a certain cognitive dissonance among some “Marxists” who prefer the idealised working class of their imagination to the real, living and complicated mass of working class people; and prefer purity to the compromises and adjustments that are needed to make socialism a living political reality, relevant to the day to day experience of working people.

One of the most extraordinary achievements in advancing scholarly understanding of this sort of Marxism as a belief system, (which in the modern English speaking world is really only the preserve of “Trotskyists”) is the magisterial“The Road to Terror” by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov which assembles and discusses hundreds of previously top secret Soviet documents from the 1930s.

The work describes the process of the growing use of state terror, and in particular how the causes were not solely the personal responsibility of Stalin: agency was dispersed and devolved throughout the Communist Party. The extensive use of violence came from a particular type of party organisation that had been forged in specific historical conditions and which then encountered difficult, real-world challenges that triggered an exaggerated repressive response.

Getty and Naumov discuss the peculiar nature of Russian Marxism in the pre-revolutionary period. They reject the conceit of Michel Foucault that the language, patterns and interactions used in “discourse” create meaning – whereby language becomes the mediation through which historical reality is created as a social reality independent of physical reality. Nevertheless, while rejecting this specious and fashionably technical usage of the word “discourse”, Getty and Naumov nevertheless locate the historically specific experience of the Bolsheviks in creating a sub-culture of discourse, within the everyday meaning of that word: debate and discussion creating a particularly text-oriented belief system. As they put it:

“For the Bolsheviks before the revolution (and especially for the intellectual leaders in emigration), hairsplitting over precise points of revolutionary ideology was much of their political life. To a significant extent, Bolshevik politics had always been inextricably bound with creating and sharpening texts”

The nature of Bolshevism was to seek to create an ideologically relatively homogenous political party sufficiently socially insulated and self-referential to dare to overthrow not only the government but also to restructure or replace all of the civil society institutions that mediated daily life; and who were sufficiently self-assured to seek to form a new form of government untrammelled by the historical constraints of precedence or the rule of law.

Louis Proyect’s lousy project is to preserve the nit picking, textually obsessed pursuit of intellectual “Marxist” orthodoxy, while being utterly divorced from practical politics. It is like being in a cult with only one member. Well, it is a sort of a life.

53 comments on “Louis Proyect’s lousy project

  1. Long ago in the snake-pits of Usenet someone called Louis ‘a one-man sect’.

    To which I responded: ‘A one-man sect? He’s a one-man workers’ state!’

    But seriously … the distinctive prose style apart, Louis’s problem is that he learned to think in the US SWP of the 60s and 70s.

    This was not a good school.

  2. jock mctrousers on said:

    Merle Haggard – Working Man Blues
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbEstJ98TcM

    Merle has said that he was always a bit tongue in cheek on ‘Okie’.

    I think that Louis is a front for a propaganda team using some sort of styling software to get a consistent voice – he just produces too much, is too much all over the place…

  3. Has there been some sort of bust-up at Socialist Unity? There was an article about Putin by John which vanished – I noticed this because I was interested in reading any comments, and then over the London Mayor thing there seemed to be something of a conflict. Not that you haven’t disagreed before, but it seemed to be getting “hotter”.

  4. Andy Newman on said:

    David Ruaune,

    John and I remain friends and comrades, but we dont always agree. Sometimes disagreements in politics can seem sharp but relate to tactical judgements or nuance, not real issues of substance.

    In particular I have admiration for John’s clarity and consistency over Syria, where he has been right all along.

    I dont know what happened if an articke disapprared. John may have decided to publish it elsewhere

  5. Andy Newman on said:

    Ken MacLeod,

    The Internet has been a bit of a curse for Louis, in the online days once he broke from the swp he would have needed to move on.

  6. David Ruaune: Has there been some sort of bust-up at Socialist Unity? There was an article about Putin by John which vanished

    No bust up at all. I posted the article but then decided to take it down. It had already appeared at Counterpunch and the American Herald Tribune, a publication that I have just started writing for, and I put it up here as an add on. However I decided that I didn’t have the time or energy to engage in the inevitable debate on it and so felt inclined to just take it down.

    Saying that, I’ve just engaged in an extended debate with Andy over his Sadiq Khan piece, so there you go.

    Andy and I are mates, comrades, who’ve worked together on SU for quite a number of years now. I couldn’t see me every falling out with him as I respect him too much for that. We disagree on issues, but never with any rancour I think.

    It’s all good.

  7. George Hallam on said:

    the magisterial “The Road to Terror” Arch Getty by J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov

    I think ex cathedra would be more appropriate.

    Arch Getty’s did his best work when he was a lean and hungry Phd student.

    While I value ‘The Road to Terror’ for the documents it reproduces, the commentaries are jejune and lacking in insight.

    Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
    Of that which once was great is passed away.

  8. Andy Newman,

    Well, in terms of his political interests and activities Louis has moved on. Marxmail, which he set up and moderates, is a useful resource and forum. I have a lot of respect for Louis, even though I disagree with him on much.

    What he hasn’t moved on from is the style of arguing characteristic of the US SWP, where the ad hominem and the red herring are weapons of first resort. And that was in its better days.

  9. Bryan CWI on said:

    The funniest thing about Louis is that he says the organized left needs to focus on uniting with each other. Yet, his activity is all about trashing other leftists. Seems like he just wants people to unite with *him*. A “non-sectarian sectarian”.

  10. This “social liberalism” obsession is especially common among the North American Left, unfortunately. I recall a couple of years ago how my brother was showing support for George Galloway on Facebook and a female friend, who identified as left-wing, commented that despite his commitment to preserving the welfare state, his support for trade unionism, his consistent anti-imperialism, his support for higher levies and taxes on the financial sector, etc, etc, she wouldn’t support him because he was anti-abortion !
    It’s difficult sometimes for people who have a good education and had the liberty to explore more “esoteric” aspects of culture to understand, but many working-class people ARE socially-conservative or at least don’t feel the need to parade their liberalism around self-consciously. But when it comes down to bread and butter issues like working conditions, social services and pay, most working- class folks don’t really give a toss so long as you don’t harm their ability to preserve those things.

  11. Bryan CWI: Seems like he just wants people to unite with *him*. A “non-sectarian sectarian”.

    I think he needs a hug actually. His seems to me to be a clear cut case of a man nursing abandonment issues – i.e. abandoned by the left as the major voice he believes he should be and consequently lashing out at all and sundry with the bitterness of a man who looks back on his life and sees unfulfilled ambition and wasted years . His writing on culture and movies is pretty decent for the most part, but politically he’s the metaphorical equivalent of a balloon after the air’s been let out, reduced to a desultory existence of uselessness..

    I tend to disagree with Ken about the Marxmail forum that Louis runs. I used to be a member of it 15 years ago, when I lived in the US and didn’t know any better. Last time I looked it resembled a support group for disaffected Trotkysists rather than a serious forum for analysis or debate.

    But having said all that, I retain a grudging affection for Louis. In fact I can honestly say I’d be intrigued to meet him. I’m sure after a couple of pints we’d be be as tight as Starsky and Hutch. Might even consider inviting him over for a vacation. I’ll even take him to see Edinburgh Castle and buy him an ice cream.

    I’m guessing he’s a vanilla man.

  12. Andy Newman on said:

    Omar,

    Actually, i remember discussing George’s ptactice on abortion issues with former Laboor MP Anne Snelgrove, as she had been one of the cross party pro choice whips last time attempts were made to restrict abortion rights in parliament. She said George was open to duscussion and agreed to support no change in the law. In contrast, former left MP David Drew did vote to tighten restrictions.

    It is of course both think that abortion is wrong on a personal level, and still agree that it is a womans right ti choose.

  13. Andy Newman on said:

    jock mctrousers,

    Yes, okie is certainly tongue in cheek, but also affectionate self parody . “Fighting side of me” has a bit more grit in it.

    Conwat Twitty recorded a good version on Okie. I accidently had it playing in the car with the windoe open when driving through a crusty street party in Stokes Croft Bristol.once

  14. It seems that for Louis, and many others who were formerly active on the radical left, they have given up on actually changing the world, and instead they just want to critique capitalism in the company of those whom they feel a cultural affinity with. Socialism has become an “identity” that they use for self-definition, not a collective project for real world political change.

    I am reminded of something I read months ago:

    ‘Without this characteristically morbid psychic dynamic, opportunism would not be able to mobilize the desire, to satisfy the libido, of the opportunist; if communism was simply something to be rejected and devalued, opportunism would immediately lose a large part of its allure. Hence, the process of semioticization is not a simple epiphenomenon of opportunism, but a key to the ways in which it attracts and enchants its unconscious victims, the greatest part of which are the petty bourgeois youth, who find in opportunism a reflection of their own ambivalence toward communism: the submission to the demands of the dominant ideology, which devalues it and marginalizes it, and, at the same time, the pleasure of a forbidden desire for it through “harmless” substitutes.’

    Click my name for the rest.

  15. wwsd,

    I’m glad I’m not clever enough to understand what any of that means. Seriously, can you imagine saying that down the pub on a Saturday night? What world do these people inhabit…!?

  16. George Hallam on said:

    Feodor: can you imagine saying that down the pub on a Saturday night?

    Yes, I can imagine saying that down the pub. I like a laugh.

    It reminds me of the question: What do you get if you cross a member of the mafia with a sociologist?’

    Answer: an offer you can’t understand.

    I don’t necessarily agree with the writer but as an exercise I tried expressing it in more popular language.

    A lot middle-class lefties are tossers who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. They’re always banging on about ‘revolution’ and building a ‘real communist society’ but they never actually do anything.
    Why are they such poseurs?
    People who sell out so they can get on don’t bother to talk like they want a revolution.
    To understand these middle-class lefties you have to get inside their heads. They’re in two minds about communism. It’s a dangerous idea that could get them into trouble but at the same time it’s attractive.
    What they do is to romanticise communism so that it becomes something that is perfect and impossible to attain. This allows them to fantasise about revolution, communism, etc., but lets them off the hook of having to do anything about it.

    That’s 132 words – ten more than the original.

  17. George Hallam: What do you get if you cross a member of the mafia with a sociologist?’

    Answer: an offer you can’t understand.

    Excellent!

    I’d forgotten that one. Thanks George 🙂

  18. jock mctrousers on said:

    great sociologist joke, and thanks for the true historical materialist exposition of wot wotsisname said.

  19. George Hallam on said:

    jock mctrousers,

    Thanks, but I’m sure a lot of things have been lost in the translation.

    I used ‘romanticise’ for ‘semioticization’ which doesn’t really get the full meaning. ‘Mythologise’ might be better, but that would depend on which pub you were in.

  20. Andy Newman on said:

    George Hallam,

    When you paraphrase like that it is rather a good point. There is a business opportunity for you there “I read Zizek so you dont have to”

  21. George Hallam: Zizek would be a real challenge. I think it would be a lot of work for what must a niche market.

    I have two of Zizek’s books in my collection. Given how prolific he is, and how there are some who consider him a genius, I suffered a lapse and decided that the reason I always found his work utterly impenetrable every time I had a browse was because I wasn’t clever enough to understand it.

    But after giving those two titles a go I’m happy to confirm that I’ve recovered from my lapse. It was down to Zizek all along.

    Btw I’ve just discovered the work of Erich Fromm and thoroughly enjoying the experience, so all is not lost.

  22. George Hallam on said:

    John: I have two of Zizek’s books in my collection. Given how prolific he is, and how there are some who consider him a genius, I suffered a lapse and decided that the reason I always found his work utterly impenetrable every time I had a browse was because I wasn’t clever enough to understand it.

    But after giving those two titles a go I’m happy to confirm that I’ve recovered from my lapse. It was down to Zizek all along.

    I agree.

    Here is Fredric Jameson’s assessment:

    As every schoolchild knows by now, a new book by Žižek is supposed to include, in no special order, discussions of Hegel, Marx and Kant; various pre- and post-socialist anecdotes and reflections; notes on Kafka as well as on mass-cultural writers like Stephen King or Patricia Highsmith; references to opera (Wagner, Mozart); jokes from the Marx Brothers; outbursts of obscenity, scatological as well as sexual; interventions in the history of philosophy, from Spinoza and Kierkegaard to Kripke and Dennett; analyses of Hitchcock films and other Hollywood products; references to current events; disquisitions on obscure points of Lacanian doctrine; polemics with various contemporary theorists (Derrida, Deleuze); comparative theology; and, most recently, reports on cognitive philosophy and neuroscientific ‘advances’. These are lined up in what Eisenstein liked to call ‘a montage of attractions’, a kind of theoretical variety show, in which a series of ‘numbers’ succeed each other and hold the audience in rapt fascination. It is a wonderful show; the only drawback is that at the end the reader is perplexed as to the ideas that have been presented, or at least as to the major ones to be retained.

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n17/fredric-jameson/first-impressions

  23. john Grimshaw on said:

    George Hallam: Mythologise’ might be better, but that would depend on which pub you were in.

    Very good George. If I spoke like the original in my local I’d probably get either thumped or barred or both.

  24. George Hallam,

    Cheers George, put in a way that even a real dunderhead like myself can understand!

    I honestly couldn’t make heads or tails of that, but reading it again after reading your explanation/translation, I can now grasp the point Zizek’s making and it seems a quite good one, as Andy notes. It’s like when you’re trying to read one of the old Greeks, and can only understand it after turning to the explanatory notes at the back of the book.

    There’s a certain hypocrisy/irony in the point however, which appears lost on Zizek himself, in that this supposed communist revolutionary writes in a way that is only intelligible to very bright persons like yourself. What audience is Zizek writing for? Certainly not the ordinary prole, so to speak.

    Makes you wonder if Zizek himself is not guilty of a form of petty-bourgeois opportunism he sees in others: Would communism for him lose some of its allure if he had to speak in simple English? Is Marxism for him just a way of massaging his own ego, of showing himself to be cleverer than everyone else?

    Btw, wtf does ‘semioticization’ even mean? Google draws a blank…

    Also, John, if you haven’t come across it already, check out Fromm’s book on the Weimar working class, really worth the read. And best of all, an advanced degree in philosophy is not required to understand it!

  25. I notice in the entry for him in Wiki it says that in 2013 Zitzek had a correspondence with one of the members of Pussy Riot. Does anyone know what they said to each other?

    I’m interested because of the quoted reference to Pussy Riot above.

  26. George Hallam on said:

    Feodor: Btw, wtf does ‘semioticization’ even mean?

    I’m not an expert so I’ll have to consult a higher authority.

    First stab is ‘to make into a symbol’, hence the idea of ‘myth-making’.

    Perhaps the way Dickens made the guillotine the symbol of the French Revolution could be an example.

    I’ll get back to you when I know more.

  27. George Hallam: Perhaps the way Dickens made the guillotine the symbol of the French Revolution could be an example.

    He certainly did use it as a symbol. However I may be wrong but I’m sure someone else got there first.

    Just an aside clearly.

  28. Feodor: Also, John, if you haven’t come across it already, check out Fromm’s book on the Weimar working class, really worth the read. And best of all, an advanced degree in philosophy is not required to understand it!

    Thanks for that Feodor, I’ll check it out. I’ve read ‘Man For Himself’ and am now working my way through ‘To Have Or To Be?’

    It’s excellent stuff, even though suffused with a liberal sprinkling of idealism. He’s spot on in identifying the fundamental problem with capitalism and really existing socialism hitherto as a focus on the problems of production instead of the need to limit consumption.

    Hyper-consumption, driven by an advertising industry that is the real engine of modern capitalism, lies at the root of the ‘permanent’ chaos and crisis that we experience as normality. This is driven by an obsession with growth, regardless of the human, social, or environmental cost.

    We need to limit consumption, which is responsible for accentuating individualism – i.e I consume therefore I am – while attenuating our collectivist instincts and identity.

    Btw, has anyone had a go at Bukharin’s ‘Philosophical Arabesques’? I’m dipping in and out and even though it is likewise challenging, it has the benefit of being intellectually and philosophically brilliant.

    The fact that he wrote it while in prison awaiting execution makes it even more remarkable. I’m halfway through the biography of Bukharin by Stephen F Cohen and intend writing something on him in due course.

  29. George Hallam on said:

    I’m halfway through the biography of Bukharin by Stephen F Cohen and intend writing something on him in due course.

    Bukharin or Stephen Cohen?

    Whichever it is I suggest you take care.

  30. George Hallam: Bukharin or Stephen Cohen?

    Whichever it is I suggest you take care.

    Unlike you, I’m not and never have been ‘Stalin right or wrong’. As much as I’m not an anti-Stalinist, neither am I blind to the fact that some atrocious crimes were committed under his leadership. One of those crimes was the murder of Bukharin.

  31. George Hallam on said:

    George Hallam: I’m halfway through the biography of Bukharin by Stephen F Cohen

    So you haven’t got to chapter ten yet?

    John: Unlike you, I’m not and never have been ‘Stalin right or wrong’. As much as I’m not an anti-Stalinist, neither am I blind to the fact that some atrocious crimes were committed under his leadership. One of those crimes was the murder of Bukharin.

    It seems as though you have made up your mind so you don’t need to.

  32. George Hallam on said:

    John,

    That last comment of mine was a bit sharp. I’ll try to moderate my tone.

    I’ve read your stuff for several years now and I take you seriously.

    This is an important topic. It would be a pity if our discussion was reduced to spiteful invective

  33. George Hallam: This is an important topic. It would be a pity if our discussion was reduced to spiteful invective

    I agree. I intend writing something on Bukharin soon. I’ll look forward to discussing it then.

    Cheers.

  34. George Hallam on said:

    John,

    Soviet studies is unusual in that there is a division between historians on the question of sources. In other areas historian often base their research on both official records and personal accounts. In Soviet studies there is a conflict with different methods leading to opposing conclusions.

    Mainstream Western historians, e.g. Robert Conquest, rely on unofficial sources which tended to be personal accounts, memoirs, reminiscences, etc. Soviet dissidents, e.g. Roy Medvedev, had the same approach. The obvious difficulty with such sources is that they can contain a great deal of hearsay and are therefore difficult to substantiate. Robert Conquest, for example, did not regard this as a problem and even went to the extent of celebrating rumour, as a primary source as in his dictum: “ Truth can thus only percolate in the form of hearsay.” (The Great Terror, p. 754).

    In contrast, Arch Getty has always placed great emphasis on archival sources and his research results contradicted the mainstream. Accordingly, Getty is extremely critical of the work of historians like Conquest.

    Stephen Cohen is in the former camp. His biography of Bukharin came out in 1973 just a few years before Conquest’s The Great Terror (1968) and Medvedev ‘Let History Judge’(1969), works which Cohen quotes with approval.

    Relying on unsubstantiated accounts is not the only problem with the mainstream version of Soviet history. Historians like Stephen Cohen tend to be rather selective in the memoirs and reminiscences they chose to include.

    On Stephen Cohen specifically, while he is happy to cite the “Letter of an Old Bolshevik” and the memoirs of Alexander Orlov, he is shy using the works other defectors such as, A. V. Svetlanin , G. Tokaev and G. S. Lyushkov. Most importantly, Cohen ignores what a Swiss supporter of Bukharin, Jules Humbert-Droz, said in his memoirs.

  35. George Hallam,

    I will keep your cautionary note on sources in mind. I have also read the work of Moshe Lewin and J Arch Getty, and have just ordered Robert Thurston’s ‘Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia’.

    The argument for me is not whether Stalin or Bukharin was right in their respective positions on the economic and political course for the development of the Soviet Union, as this argument the record shows was won by Stalin.

    The question for me is over whether Bukharin deserved to die as a traitor? And over whether the war unleashed against the peasantry in response to the grain supply crisis of 1927-28 was avoidable?

  36. George Hallam on said:

    John: I have also read the work of Moshe Lewin and J Arch Getty, and have just ordered Robert Thurston’s ‘Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia’.

    Great stuff.

    I made the mistake of lending my copy of ‘Life and Terror’ some years ago. Thurston is very good. . It’s a pity he gave up writing about this issue.

    Moshe Lewin – more popular with his students than with the secretarial staff. The fact that he couldn’t tie his own shoelaces shouldn’t count against his writing but he’s not in the same class as either Getty or Thurston.

    Your post has prompted me to get out ‘Origins’. It’s well worth rereading.

    For no other period or topic have historians been so eager to write and accept history-by-anecdote. Grand analytical generalizations have come from secondhand bits of have come from secondhand bits of overheard corridor gossip. Prison camps stories (“My friend met Bukharin’s wife in a camp and she said”) have become primary sources on central political decision making. .The need to generalise from isolated and unverified particulars has transformed rumors into sources and has equated repetition of stories with confirmation.

    Arch Getty ‘The Origins of the Great Purge’ introduction (page 5 of the 1985 edition)

    The ‘Bibliographic essay’ is a damming assessment of the value of ‘Letter of an Old Bolshevik’ and Orlov’s memoir. It is also a devastating critique of the work of Conquest, Medvedev and Solzhenitsyn. In short, Getty attacks the foundations of Stephen Cohen’s biography of Bukharin.

    John: The question for me is over whether Bukharin deserved to die as a traitor?

    I suppose that depends on what you think of capital punishment.

    John: And over whether the war unleashed against the peasantry in response to the grain supply crisis of 1927-28 was avoidable?

    See ‘Peasants, Political Police, and the Early Soviet State: Surveillance and Accommodation under the New Economic Policy’
    Hugh D. Hudson Jr.

    Hudson’s answer is ‘No’.

    By fall 1927 a growing number of peasants, seeing the regime now as weak, were expressing the desire for a showdown with the regime. The traditional peasant leadership and the OGPU had finally reached an agreement: violence would resolve the impasse. ..

    The war for bread, and the threat of war from abroad, combined to destroy the political police’s faith in the ability to produce a workable compromise that would allow the village and the city to labor in tandem. War thus came to the countryside, and peasant society succumbed.

    Page 125

  37. George Hallam: Mainstream Western historians, e.g. Robert Conquest, rely on unofficial sources which tended to be personal accounts, memoirs, reminiscences, etc. Soviet dissidents, e.g. Roy Medvedev, had the same approach. The obvious difficulty with such sources is that they can contain a great deal of hearsay and are therefore difficult to substantiate. Robert Conquest, for example, did not regard this as a problem and even went to the extent of celebrating rumour, as a primary source as in his dictum: “ Truth can thus only percolate in the form of hearsay.” (The Great Terror, p. 754).

    There is a really very good book by Mobo Gao discussing this very issue with relation to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, called “the battle for China’s Past”, which addresses the issue of how evidence which supports fashionable and pro-Western views on Mao are priviliged over evidence which supports the idea that Communist rule was a success for the working class and peasantry. The book includes a thoroughly entertaining demolition of Chang and Halliday’s hatchet job on Mao, and revealling the incredibly poor academic standards which are accepted if you are touting a pro capitalist view.

    I would recommend reading it alongside Justin Lin’s “Chinese Economy Demystified” to understand the economics of the period, and if you are interested in moving into territory that will frighten the liberals, the book of academic papers published by Leipzig University in 2012 (In English, but bizarrely not available in the UK, I had to set up a separate account with Amazon Deutschland to buy it) called “Hunger and Scarcity in State-Socialism”, that includes an article on the Chinese famines between 1919 and 1968 by Klaus Muehlhahn and an article by stephen Wheatcroft on “Soviet and Chinese Famines in Historical Perspective”.

    Back to anecdotal sources, one of the strengths of Mobo Gao’s book is an interesting study of contemporary attitudes in China towards the GPCR as revealed by social media.

  38. George Hallam on said:

    Andy Newman,

    Thank you. I’ve had some contact with Chinese academics and officials over the last twenty years but I’ve never made the effort to study the place. You’ve given me a place to start.

  39. George Hallam,

    A slightly out of date but easy introduction to modern China Is Mark Leonard’s “What China Thinks”, and there is an anthology of Chinese contemporary (well a few years old now) political thinkers worth tracking called “one china, many voices”

  40. George Hallam: Soviet studies is unusual in that there is a division between historians on the question of sources…

    Isn’t this more a reflection of when the historians were writing rather than of a conscious choice on their part, which seems to be what you’re implying? That is, Medvedev, Conquest, Cohen et al. were writing before it became possible to access Soviet archives, Getty and others after. Indeed, E H Carr’s the only pre-1991 western historian I’ve ever come across who attempted an official documents-based history of the USSR. Also, what you say about Droz’s memoirs is very interesting. A bit of additional info here if anyone wants to know more.

  41. George Hallam on said:

    Feodor: Medvedev, Conquest, Cohen et al. were writing before it became possible to access Soviet archives, Getty and others after. Indeed, E H Carr’s the only pre-1991 western historian I’ve ever come across who attempted an official documents-based history of the USSR.

    Medvedev, Conquest, Cohen et al selected their sources ad hoc. i.e concerned with a particular end.

    I agree that access to official records was limited but there were newspapers. The reason they didn’t use either was because they didn’t support the conclusions to which they were committed.

    When Getty started his research in the 70s he faced the same problems but got round it by concentrating on material that was available, notably the Smolensk archive. The result was that he falsified the prevailing view.

    Conquest et al show their bias not just in their preference for personal accounts but in the way they are highly selective in the personal accounts that they use. Droz’s memoirs is just one example, I have others.

  42. George Hallam on said:

    Feodor,

    it was a fair question. I hope my answer didn’t seem too dismissive.

    Of course, the time people were writing was a factor though I think the approach of earlier writers was more a function of the political situation than the availability of sources. Conquest’s approach for example was dictated by his job with the IRD.

    Also, thank you for following up the Droz’s memoirs.
    The link is a neat trick. I’ve tried to copy it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

  43. George Hallam: it was a fair question. I hope my answer didn’t seem too dismissive.

    Not at all–or no more than usual anyway! 😉

    What you say is fair enough, George, didn’t realise Getty had been at it so long tbh. Would also be very interested in hearing some of your other examples of Conquest and others’ selectivity if you’d be willing to share.

    As for Droz, I’ve come across him before, in respect of what he reveals about the German October of 1923 and the planning behind it. Despite there being a few (English-language) books/chapters on the subject, he’s mostly ignored in those works too. Hope someone one day goes to the effort of translating his memoirs, seems like they may be full of historical gems.

    The link is a neat trick. I’ve tried to copy it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

    🙂

  44. jock mctrousers on said:

    Andy Newman: the book of academic papers published by Leipzig University in 2012 (In English, but bizarrely not available in the UK, I had to set up a separate account with Amazon Deutschland to buy it) called “Hunger and Scarcity in State-Socialism”, that includes an article on the Chinese famines between 1919 and 1968 by Klaus Muehlhahn and an article by stephen Wheatcroft on “Soviet and Chinese Famines in Historical Perspective”.

    That’s one I’d love a look at, but at c£50 a shot I think it will be some time…