totalitarianism: religious and political

17 03 2013

It is often suggested by the supporters of capital, and denied by its opponents, that Fascism and Soviet Communism bore more than a superficial resemblance, says Roy Ratcliffe. Indeed, whilst fervent supporters of capital frequently declare them equivalent evils, some anti-capitalists declare them as absolute opposites. For those not stubbornly sheltering in ideological trenches or overly burdened by dualistic modes of thinking, the matter cannot be left to the partisans of either of these camps. It is undoubtedly true, that under Stalin, Soviet communism, with its one-party format, concentration camps, summary execution of opponents and total control of all aspects of life, (with the exception of industrialised gassing), shared many symptomatic elements, with the Nazi Fascists of Germany.

fascism_and_communism

The question that remains to be answered, from an anti-capitalist perspective is whether this resemblance was superficial and coincidental or fundamental and related. The fact that during their ascendancy, communists and fascists fought each other with undisguised hatred and ferocity (and often still do) should not be considered a sufficient weight of evidence to eliminate any further inquiry as to fundamental and related similarities. It is sufficient to recognise the fact that some religious orders of the same overall Abrahamic denomination (Judaic, Christian and Muslim) have also fought each other with undisguised viciousness and loathing whilst sharing the same overall ideology and even the same founding documents. From this, and other cases, we can conclude that opposition and malice, even taken to the most obscene and inhumane lengths, do not necessarily cancel out any fundamental and related similarities between organised ideologies and movements. Therefore, in this contribution I wish to reflect upon two of the ideological assumptions shared by totalitarian movements – of all persuasions – for to do so sheds some light upon a important question which negatively effects the present and future anti-capitalist struggle.  The ideological assumptions I refer to are those transmitted to Europe and the west via a particular strand of Greek philosophy.

Elsewhere, I have argued that the sectarian distortions of the revolutionary-humanist ideas of Marx, by the Bolsheviks, led to the eventual degeneration of the Soviet post-Capitalist experiment and the final disintegration and fragmentation of the various Communist Parties.# However, the ideological assumptions which contributed significantly to this distortion and degeneration require further consideration for they have not disappeared from the plans and projections of many who remain on the anti-capitalist left. Indeed, within this tradition, they have rarely been questioned.  In one sense this cannot be too surprising for at least two reasons. First, because for some it just doesn’t bear thinking about. The brutality and inhumanity of Fascism (particularly in its German and Israeli forms) are so horrible that any ideological and practical similarities are quickly and utterly rejected out of hand, by many of those dedicated to the overthrow of capital. Second because these assumptions are a part of the inherited practices of the west which are in general taken for granted. Consequently they continue to have a dominant hold on all classes educated in and through that tradition. It is an intellectual domination which extends to those sects and groupings which claim to hold on to the materialist positions of Marx, yet adhere to the ‘vanguard’ position of Lenin and Trotsky. It is also the strand conveyed to the modern period by means of the hegemony of Christianity and is most directly influenced by the views and reputations of Plato and Aristotle.  The significant aspects of this historic tradition, which enlighten an analysis of the Bolshevik distortions of Marx, I suggest are two-fold.

The first assumption is that civilised society, past, present and future, for its proper progress and management, requires an elite group of leaders.  Plato in his Laws held that it was the duty of the ruling elite (the Guardians) to lead and protect the people. This opinion is the philosophical expression of the concept of a firm, knowledgeable shepherd leading the erratic and wayward sheep. A view which was explicit in Judaism and personified in the characters of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah etc. The concept was carried over to Christianity, when a group of Jews, sufficiently critical of some aspects of Judaism, broke away and formed the embryo Christian communities of the Near East.  The Christian analogues of the Judaic Prophetic leaders became Jesus, Peter, Paul and the later succession of Popes. In Islam this leadership principle was represented by Muhammud and the following contested succession of Caliphs and Imams – rightly guided or not.  Tried and tested as it was, this tradition was sufficiently strong and useful to all ruling elites, for it to survive the transition from its religio/philosophic origins to modern, more secular movements. The assumptive necessity of a benign, firm, ‘educated’ leadership, therefore also became an essential element underwriting Liberal Democracy, Fascism and Bolshevism.

The ’elected’ leadership principle of liberal democracy with its revolving Presidents and Prime Ministers, whilst at the same time maintaining elite state governance, was an astute modification of that principle, a modification which to some extent disguises its true purpose.#  However, the 20th century totalitarian movements, veered back toward the orthodox Platonic ideal and had their own ‘stern shepherds’ selected. Fascist movements held them to be embodied in the characters of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco etc. Under Bolshevism the uncompromising and ‘necessary’ leadership principle was exercised by Lenin and then Stalin. Under Chinese communism, by Mao etc. The ancient principle of strict guardians outlined in Plato’s pre-Christian republic, passed through the minds and manners of the Popes, Bishops, Vicars and Kings of the medieval period, before being adopted by the uncompromising executive officers of revolutionary Bourgeois states. Cromwell and Robespierre being outstanding bourgeois embodiments of that particular ruthless elitist principle. It is therefore not too surprising that the central committees of the 20thcentury totalitarian political movements, also found the same assumptions served their purpose. If the reader is in doubt about the strength of this intellectual lineage, consider the original – Plato – on this all-pervading assumption.

“The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male of female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace – to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest  matters he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals….only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.”

Anyone familiar with the ideologies and organisational practices of Religion, Bourgeois Civil Services, Fascism and Bolshevism, will recognise an essential core of continuity between the 2000 year old intellectual elitism advocated by Plato in the above excerpt and that which was still extant in 20th and 21st centuries. Whilst the assumption permeates many societies at many levels, the resemblance is particularly apparent in totalitarian political and fundamentalist religious movements. The longevity of this inherited assumption and its mechanical insertion into the 20th (and 21st century) anti-capitalist movement is clear. The concept and practice of appointing, yes appointing, ‘leading comrades’ at every level of revolutionary anti-capitalist organisation from local groupings, through regional assemblies to the national or central committees, was an omnipresent form during the 20th century. Indeed, it is a form which still manages to survive more or less intact, within the various revolutionary anti-capitalist movements that have managed to survive into the 21st.

Of course, the reality rarely conforms to the ideal and even under Lenin and the more brutal Stalin, leadership (graced occasionally by the euphemisms of one-man management and ‘Better Fewer but Better‘ concepts) did not in general extend to the personal ablutions of each individual. Nevertheless, the principle of ‘leading comrade‘ or Party Secretary, as with Fuehrer served the purpose outlined by Plato of centralised direction and control of personnel, resources, policy and action, even when (in the case of the Bolsheviks) it was partly camouflaged by the fraudulent appellation of ‘democratic‘. The strong hold of this assumption, (however, benignly and patronisingly formulated) is indicated by the fact that it was followed despite the frequent references in Marx to the self-activity of working people and to the need for elections and immediate de-selection, by workers, of any unsuitable ‘elected’ deputies in any anti-capitalist and post-capitalist activity.

The second and connected assumption inherited from this particular ancient Greek socio-political ideology is that the proper course of humanity involves in an inevitable progress toward a final purpose or some form of utopian future – as imagined by the ‘vanguard‘! In the religious sphere of Judaism, this final purpose and utopian future, the priestly elite asserted, was to be introduced on earth by divine intervention via the intermediary of an earthly Messiah after the re-conquest of Palestine. In the religion of Christianity this future, the Apostles declared was the delivery of a New Jerusalem by the Good Shepherd, ‘Faithful and True‘, whilst in Islam, final purpose and utopia were to be found in an imaginary, esoteric destination envisaged as a virgin-full heaven, also engineered in one way or another by divine agency.

In contrast, the utopian fantasy of Fascist ideology was perhaps most perfectly expressed in the Nazi concept of a blitzkrieging thousand year Reich, administered by blonde, blue-eyed Aryan elite guardians. The utopian destination formulated by the leaders of the Soviet Union was to be a national and then world-economy of plenty produced by the deforming industrial principles of Taylorism (a form of extreme exploitation suggested by Lenin), and the militarisation of all labour (suggested by Trotsky) both forcefully implemented by the Politburo and its appropriately armed bodies of men and women recruited to the Cheka and later KGB.  A trio of examples from the Lenin and Trotsky archives.

“..not a single rogue (including those who shirk work) to be allowed to be at liberty, but kept in prison, or serve a sentence of compulsory labour of the hardest kind…in one place half a score of rich, a dozen rogues, half a dozen workers who shirk their work (in the manner of rowdies, the manner in which many compositors in Petrograd, particularly in the Party print shops shirk their work) will be put in prison. In another they will be put to cleaning latrines. In a third place they will provided with yellow tickets after they have served their time…in a fourth place one out of every ten idlers will be shot on the spot. (Lenin. Collected Works. Vol. 26 page 414.)

“Yes it is a dictatorship of one party! This is what we stand for and we shall not shift from that position.” (Lenin Collected Works. Vol. 29 page 535.)

“..we can have no way to socialism except by authoritarian regulation of the economic forces and resources of the country, and in the centralised distribution of labour power in harmony with the general state plan. The labour state considers itself empowered to send every worker to the place where his work is necessary. And not one serious socialist will begin to deny to the labour state the right to lay its hand upon the worker who refuses to execute his labour duty.” (Trotsky. ‘Terrorism and Communism’. Page 153))

These are not the only such authoritarian extracts from these two particular anti-capitalists. If one examines the soviet experiment thoroughly the conclusion is difficult to avoid. The self-activity and decision-making of the working class, so vigorously and repeatedly defended by Marx, was rapidly written out of the post-capitalist script, theoretically and practically by both Lenin and Trotsky and the senior Bolsheviks. Hence the ease with which Stalin was able to take such views and policies to their logical and bestial conclusion using the top-down model of Party and State they had so enthusiastically created. The above draconian instructions (and numerous others) are not resolutions drawn up by soviets of workers and soldiers, after vigorous debate, but party dictates by a middle-class Jacobin type elite who arrived at them in ‘central committee’ and passed them down using armed force from the top of a vanguardist, heirarchical Party and State.

Since in all these totalitarian ideologies, the destination, although differing, was imagined and prescribed by the respective ‘guardian elect’ to be so perfect and so perfectly suited to the needs and aspirations of the flocks they patronisingly tended, nothing and no-one should be allowed to propose alternatives, interfere with, or question, the nature or direction of the journey they proposed.  In each case, the sheep (the ordinary people) were to be protected from any wolves (the dissidents) by the diligence and punitive powers of the ‘good shepherds’ organised in the exclusive power-wielding convocation or Party of the elite.  True to Plato’s original conception, in this particular aspect, the ‘wolves’ could be mercilessly exterminated as pestilential impediments to the ’imagined’ steady progress toward an elite conceived rosy future of incremental or pre-destined improvement. The illusory glorious end could, by a simple logical extension of this totalitarian mentality, justify any inglorious means to achieve it.  Accordingly, in the religious realm, heretics and critics were eliminated by stoning, burning, garrotting or stabbing at the instigation of Rabbis, Bishops and Imam’s; critics and opponents of Fascism were, jailed, summarily shot or concentrated in death camps, by the SS Nazi’s; whilst Anarchists, internal critics and/or those labelled ‘Mensheviks‘, received the intrusive attentions of a Soviet Communist Party bullet in the head or were compelled to accept the unsavoury (and frequently fatal) hospitality of a death camp Gulag.

The influence of religion in rendering the above noted assumptions acceptable and unchallenged within the anti-capitalist movement also cannot be ignored. Leninism/Stalinism whilst professing atheism nevertheless attracted into their ranks millions of ordinary people seeped in religious millennialism, religious forms of outlook and patterns of behaviour. Stalin was trained as a priest and used and turned ‘Marxism’ into a religious-style dogma and orchestrated an aura of infallibility about himself. Lenin, before and after his death, was deified and eventually put on display as a horizontal neo-religious icon, past which reverent citizens filed in worshipful awe.  Lenin, and later Stalin, were seen (and seemed to consider themselves) as infallible Popes of communism – or rather Popes of a deformed version of Marx’s ideas. Many within the lower ranks of Bolshevism also saw the hoped for dawn of communism as a millennial transformation creating the future promised land on earth for the poor – or in other words, a new ‘socialist’ Jerusalem. Such nonsense was not a vision promoted by Marx, but one which is firmly rooted within the imaginative essence of Judaism and early Christianity. What we have had (in Bolshevism, Stalinism, Trotskyism) despite ardent protestations to the contrary, and a few dissident contradicting voices, was a semi-religious secularism allied to a totalitarian, Millennialist, dogmatic view of Marx. Belief and faith in ‘the Party’ and its programme outweighed (and still tend to outweigh) scepticism, serious evaluation, rigorous criticism and the acquisition of verifiable evidence, in the lives of far too many members of the various sectarian anti-capitalist tendencies.

It is an interesting observation (and perhaps not entirely a co-incidence, in this particular regard, that Trotsky with a Jewish background should have been called a ‘prophet’ by his (in his own words) a “non-Jewish, Jew” (!) biographer Isaac Deutscher  (ie the trilogy ’Prophet Armed‘, Prophet Unarmed’ ’Prophet Outcast’). This perhaps indicates more than a casual religious nod toward the leading intellectual of the 4th International and his totalitarian concept of what would constitute a desirable new millennium.  Even in my youthful days of an ostensibly fully atheist Trotskyism, the dogmatic certainty of some of the so-called ‘leading comrades’ in every field, was every bit a mirror image of the equally dogmatic religious forms of certainty. For those of us assembled, the largely undisturbed pages of Das Kapital may have (and for many did) replaced the largely unread Bible, and confident materialist dialectic pronouncements replaced the equally convinced theological expositions, but the dogmatic certitude of ‘absolute’ knowledge was still glaringly apparent.

The replacement ‘holy trinity’ of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, became Marx, Engels and Lenin, with Trotsky as a further persecuted and sacrificed potential Christ-like saviour. Even Trotskyist party conferences (I went to many – Young Socialists’,  SLL, IS, WF, IMG) too often emulated the gathering of religious congregations as the ‘faithful’ rank and file assembled in halls to be preached to and ‘moved’ by the high priests and guru’s of the particular Trotskyist ‘denomination‘. Gerry Healy of the SLL/WRP, for example, was a particularly  fierce ‘hell raiser’ and certainly appeared to be on a ‘fire and brimstone’ mission as in the 1960’s (!!) he incessantly prophesised the ’end was nigh’ for capitalism. How many of us, like any religious convert, at first ’believed’ what we were told and in good ’faith’ followed instructions? I know for a time I did, before my crap detectors finally kicked in! The only thing missing was the pulpit, the cross and the incense. Although in retrospect a lectern, a red flag draped on or behind the ‘alter’ of a ‘top-table’ and ample cigarette smoke often seemed to be a distorted mirroring of these ritual embellishments which often accompany organised religion.  Even passing the bucket for money at the end of the final ’sermon’ (sorry closing speech) replicated the passing round of the collection plates for the alternative ‘higher cause‘.

The vested interests of pro-Capitalist supporters, have frequently attributed the previously noted totalitarian perspective as emanating from the researches and reflections of Karl Marx. This is a false connection which has not been sufficiently refuted by those claiming to identify with his views. This omission  arises precisely because there has been failure within its ranks to question and contest the inherited assumptions of a benign leadership (a vanguard) and a top-down planned utopian progress (world communism), mentioned above.  As noted, Bolshevism shared with religion, certain elemental suppositions of the ideological and teleological inheritance of Greek Philosophy as delineated by Plato and Aristotle. As a predictable consequence of these assumptions, Bolshevised Marxism, drew on and perpetuated the myth that intellectuals were to be the aristocracy of the human species.  Such was the stature of Marx and the advances he made theoretically, that this ’idealisation’ of intellectual production was given a further twist by those who claimed to follow Marx and became Bolsheviks, Leninists, Stalinists and Trotskyists. This elitist, ideological, and teleological way of thinking is continued today by a majority of those remaining permanently and rigidly attached to the Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist and Trotskyist traditions. All of whom may have at some time intellectually registered, but practically ignored and continue to ignore the specific insights of Marx which were against the propagation of superior leaders, teleological assumptions and ideological fixity. As discussed in a previously contribution, Marx was steadfastly in support of workers direct control and self-activity. For example;

“The emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves. We cannot therefore, co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic  persons from the upper and lower middle-classes.” (Marx/Engels. Selected Correspondence. Progress. Page 307.)

He also held that practical activity was primary. In Marx, there are many such references to the primacy of practical life and the primacy of the practical struggle in the overthrow of Capital. The ‘Theses on Feurbach’ condense, codify and make this essential point crystal clear.

From Thesis 1.

“The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.”

To Marx, the defect of much of materialist thinking is that understanding reality is conceived as the object (or result) of contemplation rather than being the result of practical activity. Sadly in far too many instances this is still the case. The difference is often revealed in the idealistic approaches adopted toward unity of struggle. In solidarity campaigns, the intellectuals will invariably wish for position papers and intellectual discussions to see if unity can be theoretically agreed, before any practical unity is attempted. The necessary coincidence of ideas are placed before the necessary concurrence of unity – even against a common foe. The alternative of seriously attempting practical active unity irrespective of any theoretical disagreements is often shunned like the plague and in this way serves the needs of the foe who will, of course, attempt to create or deepen divisions.

From Thesis 2.

“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”

This could not be clearer. Anti-Capitalists and other solidarity activists, need to prove the (relative) truth of their thinking in practice, not in endless scholastic debates or masses of competing position papers. The relevance of alternative analysis and proposals should be judged by the practical results, properly evaluated, not by the number of votes they attract at any particular conference.

From Thesis 3.

“The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”

The intellectual generally thinks that his or her role is to teach or instruct the non-intellectuals. Thus they conceive society as divided into two parts one of which, the intellectual, as with Plato, is imagined as superior. In actual fact the intellectual also needs to learn, not by further retreat into contemplation, but by practical activity – revolutionary practice with and alongside the practical activists. Intellectual activity is a necessary but far from sufficient condition for success of any struggle as will be suggested below.

From Thesis 8.

“All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”

Practice and comprehension of this practice. Not endless contemplation of further intellectual abstractions, or the incessant ‘battle of ideas‘ so dear to some in the ant- capitalist movement.

From Thesis 11.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

As this last thesis indicates, the point is to change the world, not merely try to interpret it.

The use of these theses in the present (as in the past) is not to suggest reducing theory to an inconsequential factor, but to argue against the separation of theory (too often embodied in a party elite) and practice (too often delegated to the rank and file members).  They are used also to remind ourselves that theory itself needs to be updated and tested in practice. The most appropriate contemporary theory is the conceptualisation of past practice once this practice has been accurately evaluated. The uncritical regurgitation of a 73 year old schematic ‘to-do-list’ such as the Transitional Programme or such other 100 year old templates for revolution, without rigorous evaluation, is no longer sufficient in my view. Many insights from the past are still relevant, but many are not. The question is which? Only serious study, alongside action, will reveal which is which. So in the spirit of the above theses (which I consider are still relevant) I suggest we need to educate ourselves in two areas. 1. A serious evaluation of the past anti-capitalist theories and practices, and; 2. Our anti-capitalist activity needs to overcome in practice the present sectarian disunity. For this to occur within the anti-capitalist movement (and other solidarity struggles) we need to change our view of internal scepticism and criticism as automatically negative features and welcome them. Too often critical observations are seen as ‘heretical’ and are either shunned, refused publication, or polemically distorted. Argument within anti-Capitalist and solidarity discourse, should include positive criticism, (as distinct from sectarian sniping) as well as ‘active’ listening and our understanding ought, like science, to also grow by way of practical testing.

Undoubtedly, the totalitarian assumptions of Leninist/Stalinist Bolshevism, were part of a common Greek Platonic heritage shared with modern bourgeois elites along with the ancient Abrahamic religions originating in the Middle East.  To my understanding they have been further tested by the 20th century practice of Bolshevism/Stalinism and found wanting.  The struggle against capital for a post-Capitalist form of economic activity and social organisation, will not become sufficiently revitalised until this debilitating elite ‘vanguard’ heritage is understood from the perspective of the oppressed, successfully challenged, and transformed by those active within the anti-capitalist movement. Self-activity and self-organisation of the working classes in any pre-and post capitalist actions is the only way to ensure that any future transformations are, and remain, egalitarian, developed creatively, possessed, and therefore defended, by the mass of people taking part in that revolutionary transformation.

Originally published on Roy’s blog: http://criticalmassdotnet.wordpress.com/critique/

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3 responses

18 03 2013
korynmalius

Comparing:
“It is undoubtedly true, that under Stalin, Soviet communism, with its one-party format, concentration camps, summary execution of opponents and total control of all aspects of life, (with the exception of industrialised gassing), shared many symptomatic elements, with the Nazi Fascists of Germany.”
and:
“The brutality and inhumanity of Fascism (particularly in its German and Israeli forms) are so horrible that any ideological and practical similarities are quickly and utterly rejected out of hand, by many of those dedicated to the overthrow of capital.”
Erm. Do you realize you seem to be saying that Stalinist Russia was better, or at least ‘less Fascist’, than Israel?

19 03 2013
Roy Ratcliffe

Hi korynmalus!
No! To me I seem to be saying despite their differences, they are all variants on a common theme. Regards, Roy

19 03 2013
korynmalius

I would be much clearer in saying that obviously totalitarianism expressed itself in both Hitler’s Fascism and Stalinism, and that contemporary states (such as the Uk or Israel), have a scary totalitarian arsenal they could use, and, as all states, have totalitarian tendancies. But I am sorry, the sentence “The brutality and inhumanity of Fascism (particularly in its German and Israeli forms) are so horrible that any ideological and practical similarities are quickly and utterly rejected out of hand, by many of those dedicated to the overthrow of capital.”, is highly problematic, and given the amount of tiptoeing around the issue of Stalinism being totalitarian (which is pretty commonplace and accepted by most definitions of totalitarianism), I do not understand how you cannot see or deny this obvious problem in calling contemporary Israel Fascist, second only to Hitler’s Germany!




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