Saturday, July 29, 2017

Monthly Review Review

The Musings of the Professors
Sometimes you can't take politics too seriously.  The latest edition of Monthly Review (Vol. 69, #3) is a somewhat labored overview of the Russian Revolution and the conditions that have arisen since then, including the fall of that very revolution.  Various left thinkers weigh in.  Deep thoughts are had, and not so deep thoughts.  Familiar ideas repeat themselves.  Good ideas break through.  And things stand the same.

For the most part it does not dwell on the great popular social and economic gains of the Russian Revolution or its progressive role in world politics regarding national liberation struggles, anti-fascism or its role in taking some economies away from the market or from capital. Even its role in providing a 'global class war' presence that affected internal politics in capitalist countries is not covered.  It is generally a critical history in this volume, so I'll stay on that path.

Stalwart Marxist publication
The roots of Monthly Review from what I understand are among the supporters of the Soviet CP and later Maoism and the Chinese CP.  Both of these entities have fallen on hard times as 'revolutionary beacons' or fallen on no times at all.  Tiptoeing around this is a difficult job.  Professor John Bellamy Foster introduces the edition as editor and clearly makes the point that the Soviet nomenklatura 'failed to carry forth the socialist revolution' and became a 'bureaucratic ruling class.'  I think Foster is a supporter of Nicolai Bukharin at this time, who was both a close ally and then victim of the nomenklatura. 

But Foster also says upfront -" 'Socialism in one country' the basic defensive posture of the USSR though out its history, was thus to a large extent a geopolitical reality imposed on it from outside."  Bukharin came up with the theory of 'socialism in one country.'  What kind of socialism was this?   In spite of its later giddy proclamation by that very same nomenklatura - it was not a socialism recognized by Marx.  What socialism Foster is talking about then?  The one with a bureaucratic ruling class?  This robs the word of any real meaning.

According to Foster, no responsibility arises from the internal politics of the nomenklatura, the bureaucratic strata - it was imposed from the outside.   They were passive victims.  Yet it was advocated by internal forces for their own ends. The adoption of this idea actually was one of the main props which strengthened and solidified the nomenklatura, which moved the whole of the USSR to the right internally; which created the gulag state, which allowed the USSR to follow an international popular front policy or an ultra-left policy (as in Germany) internationally.  These policies prevented working-class revolutions. It is self-imposed exile.  This changed little after WWII, which started as another failure of the 'leadership.'  Ultimately this theory of the sole fault on outside forces, ignoring dialectics, was part of the method by which capital reconquered the USSR, as predicted.

The later deformed revolutions that did occur after WWII were imposed mostly by tanks, or were products of national liberation struggles in the context of that war, not just frontal assaults on capitalism.  Yugoslavia, which broke with the Soviet CP, was one of the only struggles that actually had independence.  Even in Cuba, the CP did not support the armed revolution at first.  Ultimately it was the nomenklatura, as every detailed study has shown, that became the core of the new capitalist class.  It assisted the reestablishment of capitalism, or the large growth of the capitalist sectors, for instance in China and Vietnam at present.

Conditions have changed however, as the working class is now the largest in history, and the prospects for world revolution - the revolution Lenin worked for - are greater than ever, as even Samir Amin notes.

Yet a spectre still haunts the intellectuals and professors at Monthly Review.   An Indian professor, Prabhat Patnaik, attacks the 'stages' theory, opposes 'forced collectivization' and endorses the view that the working class would participate in an 'uninterrupted revolutionary process.'  These are advanced views that are invisible as to their history.  'Who' might have developed them, if not Lenin...?

A Hungarian professor from Budapest, Tamas Krausz, is a little more clear.  Krausz includes a fellow named Leon Trotsky and actually never says anything hostile about him.  He describes what came after October/November in the 1920s as a 'bureaucratic counterrevolution' that led to a failed experiment in 'state socialism.' 

Bernard, D'Mello, the editor of "Economic and Political Weekly," points out the great internal defeats of the USSR:  the suppression of Kronstadt; the banning of factions; the defeat of the Left Opposition; forced collectivization and the purges and show trials of the late 1930s.  But he lauds Stalin as the leader who 'led the Soviet Union to victory over fascist barbarism.'  This even though Stalin's block with Hitler and refusal to listen to warnings of a German invasion or prepare for it brought German armies to the gates of Leningrad and Moscow!  He also comments that "sadly, Mao did not approve" the establishment of the Shanghai Commune during the Cultural Revolution.  In this "The Maoist leadership had failed to lay the basis for a genuine workers state."   D'Mello is a supporter of the Indian Maoist Naxalite rebellion, but feels it has no chance of overthrowing Indian capitalism.  He, oddly, endorses a party of "middle-class revolutionaries in the vanguard party of the 1917 type."  Muse on that.

Of most humor is Dublin professor Helena Sheehan's travels among the intellectuals of the central European workers states - Yugoslavia, Hungary, the GDR, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia - as these workers states began to unravel in the late 1980s.  You might be surprised at the ideas that 'intellectuals' nourished at the breast of bureaucratic 'socialism' come up with. For instance, they cannot decide whether a 'one party state' or a bourgeois 'multi-party state' is the correct way to go.  They obviously are unaware of another position - legality for only working-class or socialist parties.  This was the position of the 4th International. 

Diana Johnstone heroically manages to drag Monthly Review backwards.  Johnstone wrote a valuable book on the war to dismantle Yugoslavia and a somewhat easy takedown of the war queen, Hillary Clinton.  Here she dutifully includes a whole section on the evilness of Trotskyism.  Granted some Trotskyists would be disowned by Trotsky, just as some 'Marxists' and 'Leninists' would be disowned too.  But that is not the context.  Essentially she labels Trotskyism 'permanent counterrevolution.'  Which is not quite calling it the agent of 'Hitler and the Mikado' as Stalin did, but close.  Unfortunately, bureaucratic socialism is a corpse that has died, at least politically.  Johnstone's reactionary nostalgia does not permit going beyond it.

Then we have an odd celebration of Bertrand Russell by two professors from France and Quebec, John Bricmont and Normand Baillargeon.  They attack Lenin and Trotsky from the mild socialist left, though Russell at one point defended Trotsky against Stalin.    

Lastly Samir Amin weighs in, attacking Lenin for not being pro-peasant enough, even though the Bolsheviks adopted the SR platform of 'land to the peasantry' in toto.  And attacking Trotsky for not 'accepting the challenge' of building 'socialism in one country,' thus ignoring Trotsky's lifelong defense of the USSR, and his roles in creating the Soviet workers state as the second leader of the Bolshevik Party, leader of the 1917 St. Petersburg Soviet and it's military section, and leader of the Red Army that defeated the Whites. 

Again, as history might say, how did that theory work out?  For instance, the analysis that the 'bureaucracy' basically deteriorated the revolutions was first developed by the Left Opposition, Leon Trotsky and the 4th International.  Now it is an unattributed common understanding, even among these writers.  Why the timidity? 

Monthly Review is good on economics and on ecology, but this review of the Russian revolution and its aftermath seems to be missing some cylinders.

Prior reviews of Monthly Review, Foster or Amin, below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at Mayday Books, which has many Left magazines and newspapers.
Red Frog
July 29, 2017

Friday, July 21, 2017

Gorilla War

"War for the Planet of the Apes," 2017, directed by Matt Reeves

The deep ecologists will like this film.  The apes – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, bonobos - live with fire and in log huts, use spears and commune with nature.  In this film they survive the humans, who are shown as uniformly militaristic, cruel and unreliable, even with their remaining technology.  Nature itself, in the form of an avalanche, seems to agree. 

More War?
The plot is that the simian virus, which killed many humans,  is now making humans unable to talk too (humanity’s defining characteristic is talking, according to the filmmakers…)  As a result, ‘Humanity,’ in the form of soldiers following a modern Colonel Kurtz (Woody Harrelson, also called ‘The Colonel’) will kill any ape or human who opposes them or who exhibits the virus.  The rationale is that this will ‘save humanity.’  Co-existing with apes is off the table, though there is no evidence that this ‘virus’ is coming from apes themselves.  The Colonel’s slogan on their prison camp is “The Only Good Kong is a Dead Kong” – which might remind viewers of similar ideas about the Viet Cong or native Americans.  

The logic in this scenario is that this ‘flu’ was not something humans brought on themselves – unlike something like the actual swine or bird flu, which are produced by animal overcrowding in factory farms.  It may be similar to Ebola, which was originally transmitted from fruit bats or monkeys – even from domesticated pigs or dogs - to humans.  So the cause of this dystopia is nature itself, animals themselves, and not directly connected to how human society was functioning.  It is nature playing out, like the Black Plague.  So the film reflects a fear of nature – also reflected in the fear of animal intelligence as exhibited by the talking apes.  It is really a film about the war between man and nature.

A somewhat shacked-up moral subtext of the film is that Ceasar, the bonobo leader played by Andy Serkis, has so much anger that he might kill people he shouldn’t.  This is ostensibly following Koba’s methods from the prior film, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” (reviewed below).  Ceasar does, somewhat accidentally, smother a traitorous ape Winter in order to keep him from crying out for the human soldiers for help.  This scene reminds one of a similar situation from “Native Son," but that is not what the filmmaker wants you to think about.  However, Koba was not killed by Cesar in the prior film because he was a violent war leader, but because he started attacking and jailing his own people – the apes.

The apes ultimately show more ‘humanity’ and mercy than the humans by far. Like the aliens in ‘District 9’ or in ‘Avatar,’ or the animals in “Tarzan” or the classic ape in “King Kong” - our sympathies lie with them.  Their emotional character is evident, especially in the characters of Maurice and a chimpanzee they come across, Bad Ape. They even adopt a young human girl who has lost her voice.  At one point, Ceasar is crucified like a simian Christ for his sin of attempting to relieve the suffering of his fellow apes .  One human soldier released in a show of mercy by Ceasar ultimately fails to show his ‘humanity’ in return.  In contrast, a traitorous gorilla who had followed Koba and was now working for the humans at least helps the apes in a penultimate scene. 
Is there another sequel?  The apes leave the forests and mountains of California to settle away from any humans, arriving at a somewhat desolate lake that looks like Crater Lake in southern Oregon. They bring the young girl, who may grow up to be a female “Tarzan.’  Do we need more senseless warfare between ape and man? Well for one, you certainly won’t see a mass conversion to vegetarianism among the reviewers or viewers of this film.  Unless this series develops some kind of more advanced political or environmental content, I think it can be put out of its dark misery. 
Red Frog July 21, 2017

Saturday, July 15, 2017

I'm Too Sexy for my Veil

“Lipstick Jihad," by Azadeh Moaveni, 2005

This is ‘diaspora’ literature.  Populations are moving all over the world and ‘diaspora’ memoirs are the logical result.  Whether through war, famine, environmental collapse, political upheaval, pogroms, poverty, unemployment, alienation or just plain wander-lust, millions are on the move.  We no longer live in a world of exclusively ‘national’ states and the proof is all around us in human sub-communities the world over.  You do not have to understand imperialism and ‘globalism’ to see this.

Cultural Subversion
Stories of other countries are exotic tales for many U.S. readers and this book fits.  Moaveni is a young woman born in Iran, but whose upper-middle class family moved from Tehran to San Jose, California after the 1979 Iranian coup by the mullahs.  She insists that the majority of that whole class left the country, and many of them jointed the million Iranians in Los Angeles.  She spends the memoir trying to figure out her identity - if she’s Iranian enough or too American, and finally decides she is both.  Even when she’s not in Iran, she carries Iran with her in her family and friends.  She spent two years in Tehran has a reporter for Time Magazine, but decides to leave after George Bush declares Iran part of the “axis of evil’ – a stupid phrase only a Christian Texan could think up. 

Moaveni is irritatingly na├»ve, neurotic, petit-bourgeois and conventional, but she is also an astute observer.  Her intense interest in her homeland leads her back to Tehran and there she gives us a picture of what Iranians actually think about the theocratic regime.  She improves her Farsi tremendously and becomes more Iranian by the day.  Her specific focus is naturally on conditions for Iranian women, which she also has to live through.  But as a result, sort of borrowing the logic of CLR James, Moaveni shows how Iranian women try to subvert the cultural and legal domination of the clerics all the time.  This is where the phrase ‘lipstick jihad” comes from – jihad in this case meaning ‘struggle.’  Moaveni's perspective will undermine those clueless liberal multi-culturalists who think that every ‘cultural practice’ is worth respecting – even when it results in oppression and misery for women or working class people.  She shows that Iranian society is not a simple version of Arab desert, village or tribal politics, but complex, sophisticated and urban too.

Being a reporter for Time Magazine in 2000 might tip you off to the fact that Moaveni is not a radical.  She has almost no understanding of ‘blowback’ resulting from American war-making.  Her method of changing Iran is to give tepid support to the ‘reformers’ – the liberal wing of the very same religious people who took over after the Shah left Iran.  She red-baits by comparing the clerical methods to ‘Soviet-style’ society – but the comparison fails.  She makes absolutely no mention of the Iranian working class - unless you include taxi drivers - or any subterranean Iranian Marxist movement.  Only one mention is made of the fake opposition represented by the cultish and Islamic MEK, which is treasured by U.S. government figures across our limited political spectrum.  Her family has servants and they are invisible.  Her mother back in California is a conventionally religious woman while she describes her father as an atheist and Marxist.

Yet the book is rich in the issues facing Iranians, like the cruel violence of the Basij street thugs used by the regime.  Or how woman deal with the legally-prescribed head-covering hijab and cloak-like roopoosh – their version of a chador.   Moaveni deals with the legal rules related to various forms of gender segregation, like the social barriers against fraternization with men that women are not married to. She discusses the bans on street gatherings, alcohol, dancing, bikinis, ‘western’ movies and music, even poodles. Instead, the citizens are treated to occasional public whippings.  She describes how the Tehranis ignore the prohibition against not eating, smoking or drinking during the daylight hours of the month-long religious holiday of Ramadan.  She explains how Iranian Islamic repression of sexuality resulted in an overly sexualized environment as a response.  

Exceptions to prudery?  If you do want to have sex with someone you are not married to, Iranian law allows you to have a legal Sharia ‘temporary’ marriage to justify it. (!)  And you can marry 9 year old girls if needed, or more than one woman if you treat them equally. What Moaveni’s memoir shows is that the ruling clerics in Qom (called the “Mullah Factory” in fun) are alienating a great mass of the Iranian population from Islam, or their interpretation of Islam.   That is the dialectic playing out in Moaveni’s book.

The Iranian clerics are allies of the petit-bourgeois bazaaris and also made a block with the Iranian big capitalists.  They use religion as a sort of totalitarian ideology to control the Iranian population. The Shia clerics have morphed into a religious elite that controls some state economic entities through the ‘bonyad’ funds, are corrupt through graft and bribery, womanize and secretly – like their Sunni un-brothers in Saudi Arabia – revel in various  other ’western’ vices.  They control the army, the Revolutionary Guard, the paramilitary Ansar-e-Hezbollah and ‘civilian’ Basaji, the state media and are legally superior to the executive and parliament. 

This is not to say that the perpetual war drive by U.S. Democrats and Republicans against Iran is some kind of solution.  It is, in fact, the opposite, as it gives more authority to the mullahs, driving the population into their arms.  The clerics and the U.S. government are allied in this sense.  U.S. support for Saadam Hussein’s war against Iran had hugely damaging consequences to this day. Imperialism has it sights set on control of Iran, as it does on any country that opposes it, for any reason.

Moaveni finalizes her Iranian-American identity, a cross-cultural complexity, at the end of the book.  Her book is funny and revealing, especially about the odd lives various women in Tehran lead.  Yoga, lipstick, cosmetic surgery, glamorous American fast food joints, jewelry smuggling, fake exercise clubs, veil issues, attempts to jog, designer roopooshs, co-ed hiking in the mountains, wife shopping by ex-pats, the necessity of marriage in a country with many more women than men due to the long war with Iraq - the issues cover the range of exclusively urban life.   The book is great about women’s issues but politically weak at the same time.  But then, she is a journalist, not an activist.

And I got it at Eat My Words books.
Red Frog
July 15, 2017

Monday, July 10, 2017

Mayday Volunteer and Peace/Labor Activist

Thomas R Dooley, born January 20, 1926, died July 4, 2017

Comrade Tom died at the age of 91 of unknown causes in a nursing home or hospice in St. Paul, after a short stay, having transferred from United Hospital subsequent to colon surgery for colon cancer.  His mother died on July 4th too when he was 6 months old, so Tom grew up without a mother for nearly all of his life. 

Tom Tabling for May Day in his Traditional Suspenders
Tom grew up around Loring Park in Minneapolis.  He went to Catholic schools for awhile and was an alter boy at the Basilica during the Father Couglin period.  In his youthful enthusiasm then, he threw snowballs at the nearby Communist Party headquarters.  But his views changed.

Tom went to a bomber gunner school in Texas during WWII, but the war ended before he was deployed.  He became radicalized as an anti-war activist by opposing the tragic war in Vietnam.  He was a member of Veterans For Peace, joining when he retired and writing a column for the Veterans for Peace newsletter.  Tom was also a long-time member of the DeLeonist New Union Party, supporting ‘one big union’ and various labor causes.  Tom also did a funny and well-written column for them, titled “My Fellow Commodity” in the local New Unionist paper, which was one of its high points.  He used ‘myfellowcommodity’ after that in his e-mail address.  He was a long-time volunteer at Mayday Books and the most dedicated book-tabler Mayday Books had, always volunteering to sell books for the non-profit store.  He was a consistent letter and e-mail writer for progressive causes and very generous with his donations to every left group.  He designed a unique saw-horse mostly for wood-working, and donated them to many Women Against Military Madness auctions and friends.  He attended Minnesota Atheist meetings and believed in ‘no gods, no masters.’ As part of that, he crossed out the word “God” on nearly every bit of U.S. currency he was going to spend.  Really.

Several people have remarked that Tom was a 'Jimmy Higgins.' They are the people on the left who do the 'grunt' work - a labor activist 'everyman' rank and filer, as celebrated in the Socialist Labor Party play, "Jimmy Higgins."  There can be no left without "Jimmy Higginses."   Tom believed in 'No master, no slave...' and he might agree.  However, from my perspective, those who do the ground work are leaders too.

Tom sold appliances for Admiral in his younger days as a traveling salesman, then worked for the Minnesota Highway Department on the maintenance crew, from which he retired.   He married once and had 5 children.  After his marriage ended, he met Lenore Burgard, a local political activist and they formed a liaison.  In his later years he lived in the basement of his daughter Mary Kay Edward’s home in St. Paul.

Tom’s major interest was in protesting the endless wars the U.S. pursued over the years.  He was a class conscious pacifist and always wore a button against war. He had a great sense of humor, and was one of the kindest and most giving persons on the left in the metro area.  He stickered junk mail with anti-war messages or cartoons and sent it back to the poor souls who would receive the mail.  He spent time in Twin City bars from the old Stand Up Franks to the new hipster Red Cow with his friends, and left anti-war buttons with his tips.  He always liked a good beer and food to relax – though he didn’t like the Irish bars, in spite of his Irish background.  Even at the end, he was making perceptive comments and jokes about the ways of the hospital. 

Tom’s death reminds us that another generation of activists is passing from the scene.  He will be greatly missed. But as Tom would have it, the struggle continues. 

A memorial for Tom will be held at Mayday Books at 4 PM, July 29, Saturday.

Greg, Kristen, Doug, Don, Craig & Morgan

Friday, July 7, 2017

Guess Who Shouldn't Come To Dinner

“Get Out,” film by Jordan Peele, 2017

This is the modern version of the film, “Guess Whose Coming to Dinner,” except now, 50 years later, black people are no longer sure they want to be invited.  This is how ‘race relations’ are progressing many years later – going nowhere or worse. Of course, there are no such thing as different human races, but we reference the vernacular used by unscientific journalists, liberals and conservatives.

Nice White People
An upper-middle class and clueless young white woman romances a young black photographer, Chris, and invites him to meet her parents at their upstate and upscale New York home.   This event would be fraught, even if both partners were white.  She doesn’t tell the parents he’s black and he’s bothered by this omission.  But ‘it’s all good’ he says a number of times – a phrase that is perhaps too optimistic for the circumstances.   

From a romance to a comedy to a horror show, this film progresses into the predictable depths.  The parents are odd – a neuro-surgeon that can’t quit with over-familiar comments; a psychologist mother that practices hypnotism related to cigarette-smoking; a nasty drunk brother that physically challenges Chris.  Oddest of all are two black servants that work for the parents – a cook and a gardener, who both seem like hypnotized robots.  Yeah, you know what is coming.

Mary Shelley’s socialist parable “Frankenstein” was about a human monster composed of body parts from other people.  As detailed in the book, “Monster of the Market,” working class relatives of hung or dead people during Shelley’s time had to fight the hospitals and the state for their husbands’ or brothers’ bodies.  Doctors were using the bodies for various purposes, including dissection in medical colleges.  Present African parables describe kidnapped children abducted by the rich for their body parts.  Current vampire tales borrow the same psychology.  In many parts of the modern world like India, body parts from exploited populations like the Dalits are part of a brisk trade.  Kidneys for sale! Vulnerable working-class bodies have been turned into commodities by capitalism - they are not merely flesh machines worn-out during the production process, but useful beyond that.   

Partial Spoiler Alert

This film brings that story home to the U.S.  The mother meets Chris as he wanders around late at night for a smoke, and hypnotizes him with a clinking tea cup. He is shaken by this, but tries to discount it.  Chris observes one black man who is a companion to a much older white woman during a suspiciously unsuspected lawn party full of creepy white suburbanites. The black man seems oddly familiar, but he’s also robotic.  Chris takes a flash picture of him and the flash of the camera seems to shake the man out of a stupor.  The man physically attacks Chris in what might be a warning, yelling “Get Out.” 

Chris sends the picture to his buddy Lil Rel, who works for TSA, and his buddy recognizes the man as a guy from the old neighborhood in the Bronx who disappeared.  Over the phone, Lil Rel conjectures that the white folks are kidnapping black people and turning them into sex slaves or some other kind of slaves.  Chris doesn’t buy this absurd story.  Lit Rel brings this story to the police after Chris won’t answer his phone.  The cops laugh at him too.  I won’t tell you the rest.

What is striking about this film is that liberal white Obama supporters have been turned into their opposite.  They are not Klansman or Republicans or any of the other stock racists.  And only the most cynical black attitude actually reflects reality.  Even cute, monied white girls come in for suspicion – as they should.  The film reflects black distrust writ large, through a funhouse horror mirror.  It was written by a black comedian.  Is it a comedy?  Not quite. 

Monsters of the Market,” reviewed below.

Red Frog
July 7, 2017   

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Cerebral Play and the Red Domino

‘Petersburg,” by Andrei Biely, written 1916, re-written1922, published 1928 and 1935

To continue our celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, this is a review of another lost classic of Russian literature.  It focuses on 5 days in 1905, September 30 through October 4 in the city of St. Petersburg, a year of revolution in Russia.  Vladimir Nabokov thought this novel was one of the great books of the 20th Century, along with ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Remembrance of Things Past’.  Of course, that is Nabokov, a son of the Russian nobility.  Virtually unknown in the ‘West’ and only published in English in 1959, it is a modernist blend between traditional Russian literature and a symbolist approach that reminds one of surrealism or James Joyce.  Biely himself became a supporter of the Russian revolution, working on the Organizational Committee of the Union of Soviet Writers.  He died in Moscow in 1934 at the age of 53, prior to the majority of Stalinist purges.

The Bronze Horseman is After You
The plot is slight but a bit tense.  A wealthy and absurd son of a high Czarist official promises the “Party” that he will kill his father.  Like ‘Ulysses,’ and Dublin, the city of St. Petersburg plays a central role as a virtual character.   Psychological portraits of various Gogol-like citizens – the green-eared Czarist official, a ridiculous society woman, a repressed Czarist officer, a sinister anarchist revolutionary, his sick or mentally disturbed compatriot, the trivial son who dresses in a mask and red cape (and is called ‘the red domino’ by the yellow press, as ‘domino’ means mask), and marginal servants (called ‘lackeys’) or apartment dwellers populate the book.  For Russian literature connoisseurs, there are quotes or references to other Russian writers like Pushkin and Bulgakov. There is a Tolstoyan ball that degenerates into a creepy farce.  Flying over it all is the metal statute of the ‘Horseman” that stands along the Neva – Peter the Great, the spirit that haunts this corrupt city built on a swamp.  The Russian steppes surround that swamp and frighten the Czarist official.

Politically, this is an odd book.  Working class characters are almost invisible.  Factories that ring St. Petersburg are occasionally mentioned.  The working-class ‘islands’ surrounding central St. Petersburg – Vyborg, Vasilyevsky, Petrograd, Narva and the others – are where the unwashed masses lives, while the Nevsky Prospect carries a constant stream of the bowler-hatted middle class.  The 1905 Revolution plays an almost invisible background role, though it started in December 1904 and went for a whole year.  Bloody Sunday predated the book, as it was in January 1905 when the Imperial Guard shot demonstrators before the Winter Palace.  

 The character of the anarchist bomber(s), as in Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Chernyshevsky, play a central and negative role. The ‘red domino’ represents the coming bloodshed, and you could even interpret this symbol as a foreshadowing of the later November 1917 revolution.  The clash between “Asian’ and ‘European” cultures that meet in St. Petersburg is another non-class theme (much as the Sokurov film “Russian Ark” dwelled on it in relation to the Winter Palace/Hermitage), with mentions of the 1905 Japan-Russia war and various insults involving "mongols."  The “Party,” which is frequently mentioned, does not seem to be the working-class and Marxist ‘Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party’ (which united Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the time), but something more like the anarchist Narodniks or peasant-based Socialist Revolutionaries.  The 'educated classes' and the Czarists are depicted as weak, useless and odd, which is probably its most important political point.

The book itself is an enclosed symbolic and dream space, where the choral repetition of colors, shapes like circles, spheres and rectangles, musical sounds, architectural details, dialog and ugly physical characteristics attempt to forge some kind of literary unity.  Biely was called a ‘symbolist’ and the novel really centers on the psychological developments of his odd and somewhat worthless characters.  For what it is worth, ‘symbolism’ seems to be a dead style, but the book is interesting in how it attempts to do what a modernist symphony does – create some kind of artistic whole, but through non-linear or dissonant methods.  Nothing like it was produced in the U.S. at this time, so it shows how literary Russian culture was more advanced at the time, much like Irish or French literature.

What to make of the book?  It is a hard, wandering 300-page read, given it is mostly a dream fugue.  If you are a fan of Russian literature, it should be a part of your readings, as it has ties to many other Russian works.  If you like modernism mostly divorced from politics, this is the book for you.  If you want a feel for the foggy, sad culture of St. Petersburg and the ‘green’ Neva at the time, it might be interesting. But if you are interested in Russian politics as reworked by literature, this will be a disappointment.  

Prior review of “What Is To Be Done,” below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
July 1, 2017