Sunday, July 16, 2017

Frontier Atrocity by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

On 9 July 1809 in Holloway, Maine ( site of what was later to become Augusta) James Purrington, a recent settler in the community) slaughtered his wife and six of his children with an axe and fatally slashed his own throat with a razor. Midwife Martha Ballard was a near neighbor. In her diary she wrote:

My husband went and returned before sunrise when after taking a little food he and In went on to the house there to behold the most shocking scein that was Even seen in this part of the world. May an infinitely good God grant that we may all take a suitable notice of this horrid deed, learn wisdom therefrom.

Later, she described the funeral as

A sollom specttacle to behold. May we all learn a profitable lesson from this dreadful scein and may it please the God that rules to Sanctify this affliction to the surviving relatives . . .

 Martha’s  prayer no doubt echoed Mr. Taylor’s sermon – and hundreds of others she had heard in her seventy-one years- though it wasn’t the sermon but the pageantry of the occasion that impressed her most powerfully, the ritualistic arrangements of the bodies, the funeral march, and the hundreds of people crowded in nearby houses, in the streets, on the tops of buildings. There had not been an event like this in Augusta since the commemoration of George Washington’s death six years before.

The essential point for Martha, however, was that God was in control, that he had the power to “sanctify” as well as to destroy.

For some of her contemporaries, the lessons were more complex. By 1806, religious dissent in the region had increased. New sects were growing surprisingly strong, making the old divisions among Congregationalists seem tame. In 1780, all the churches in Lincoln County, whatever the differences among them, had been Congregational; by 1800, in the by then two counties of Lincoln and Kennebec, sectarian churches – Separate Baptist, Free-will Baptist, Methodist, and Universalist – outnumbered orthodox congregations by almost three to one.

It was inevitable that the Purrington murders should feed into growing anxiety over religious dissent in the region. Congregationalists along the Kennebec continued to squabble among themselves while Methodists, Free-Will Baptists, Universalists and even Shakers took their members. Martha’s neighbors were among those affected. “There were 6 persons Baptised by imertion at Sidney,” she wrote on 4 August 1805. “Mrs. Andrus was one.” James Purrington, it was said, had dabbled in more than one heterodox creed.

In his broadside “Horrid Murders” Peter Edes, editor of the Kennebec Gazette had noted that the murderer was “warm believer in the fatal doctrine of universal salvation, “ but made no effort to exploit the fact. Within days, Edes had accumulated enough additional information to amplify this explanation into a twenty-page pamphlet giving a more detailed account of the murder, a sketch of the life of Captain Purrington, and “Remarks on the fatal tendency of erroneous principles, and Motives for receiving and obeying the pure and salutary precepts of the gospel: “Unbelief in the superintending providence of God, and human accountability, is a principle which opens the door to every vice.” Edes quoted “a respectable gentleman in Bowdoinham” who affirmed that

about twenty years ago he (Capt.P.) jopoined the (Calvinistic) Baptist Church in Bowdoinham, and continued in their fellowship several years; till he imbibed the sentiments of the Freewill Baptists; for which he was cut off from the church. He was not a Universalist till some years since. I have conversed with several of his former neighbors, who unanimously testify that he was a Fatalist”

If Edes’s account is correct, Purrington’s life recapitulated the religious history of the region. In towns like Bowdoinham, already split by Baptist and New Light revivals, the heterodox teachings of the Free-Will Baptists and Universalists found fertile soil. Both groups challenged the central Calvinist doctrine that God predestined some souls for salvation, others for damnation. The Free-Will Baptists believed sinners chose to accept or reject Christ’s atonement; the Universalists argued that all od’s children would be saved. The emphasis of both groups on “a benevolent God, human perfectibility, universal non-penal atonement, and free grace for all believers” allied them with liberal  Arminians in New England’s urban centers – Edes pamphlet associated Purrington’s universalism with the “fearless impiety of a Paine and the unrestrained licentiousness of a Godwin” – yet both groups were evangelicals rather than rationalists. They were powerful precisely because they grafted their optimistic doctrines onto the experiential, charismatic religion familiar from earlier revivals. In light of the Free-Will challenge, Bowdoinham’s Calvinist  Baptists described themselves as “ a fold in the midst of wolves, or a defenseless flock surrounded with . . prowling multitudes.”

Of the two groups, the Universalists appeared most threatening because they undermined the socially useful distinction between the saved and the damned. How could society survive once the doctrine of an eternal judgment was destroyed? In a sermon preached at Bowdoinham ten days after the murders, Timothy Merritt argued that the first and moving cause of Purrington’s murders was disbelief inn the Providence of God: “Though he died seized of a large estate, he was under apprehension that his family would come to want.” But second only to his lack of faith in God’s superintending care was his belief in the doctrine of universal salvation.

 You all know, that for some years past, he has professed to believe firmly that all mankind, immediately upon leaving the body, go to a state of the most perfect rest and enjoyment: and to my certain knowledge he denied the doctrine of a day of judgment and retribution. Of course it was no question with him whether his family were regenerate, or born again, or in other words, whether they were prepared for so sudden a remove from this world. It was, therefore, natural, and what anyone would do under the same circumstances, to endeavor to prevent the anticipated trouble in his family, and make them all forever happy. There is every reason to believe that this was his real motive.

As a good Calvinist, Merritt could not let his congregation rest there, however. Purrington’s sins were natural because they mirrored the fundamental errors of humankind. Gently, he led his listeners from comfort to discomfort, from calm reassurance in the face of evil to jolting reminders of their own culpability. The murders forced Purrington’s neighbors to recognize the depravity of human nature, the frailty of life, and the folly of trusting in any earthly thing, including their nearest and dearest relations. “We may bolt our doors at night against thieves and robbers, but bolts are no security to life;- the assassin is within.”

This is not said with a view to excite jealousies and fears between friends and connections; nor to destroy that subordinate confidence which husband and wife, parents and children, reasonably repose in each other; but merely to shew you your real circumstances, and bring you to put your highest trust in God alone, where it ought to be placed.

If given the opportunity to answer Merritt’s accusations, the Universalists surely would have argued that the doctrine of universal salvation nurtured righteousness rather than sin, that their teachings were no more to blame for Purrington’s murders than the Congregationalist doctrine for Henry McCausland’s slaughter of Abigail Warren thirteen years before [ God called him to save Maine for the Congregationalists- he was deemed insane]. Universalists would have distained Calvinist efforts to breed fear in the hearts of their listeners; surely a true knowledge of God’s love was a more powerful motive for good than an erroneous fear of God’s wrath.

Despite differences in emphasis, however, the arguments of both groups began at the same point – predestination – and ended with the same consolation – ultimate trust in God’s goodness.

The oral history of Universalism contains an account of a triumphant sermon preached by Father Barnes of Portland, Maine, when all the Congregationalist ministers in the region refused to officiate at the funeral of a suicide. The theme of Barnes’  sermon – “when all the designs of God inn apparent ills are seen through, and his benevolent purposes understood, all that is now dark will become light” - is ultimately indistinguishable from Merritt’s argument – “When we see that God has suffered these evils, we are to conclude that he has acted upon some wise and benevolent principle, worthy of himself.” God is all powerful and all good. We must submit to his judgments. It is thee theology which underlines the religious sentiments in Martha Ballard’s diary: “May an infinitely good God grant that we may all take sutable notis of this horrid, deed, learn wisdom therefrom.”

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Indian Country by Neil Rolde

“ Half convinced, half constrained, the Indians go off to dwell in new wilderness, where the white men will not let him remain in peace for ten years. In this way, the Americans cheaply acquire whole provinces which the richest  sovereigns in Europe could not afford to buy.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

Lewis Cass, secretary of war under Jackson and Democratic candidate in 1848, stated the matter quite baldly. In order for the Indians not to become extinct, “it would be necessary that our frontiers cease to expand and the savages settle beyond them." – a situation he deemed unlikely.

The east-west frontier expanded right up to the Pacific, every child in America knows. That the Indians never did become extinct (  The death of the last ostensible survivor, a  Mrs. Elizabeth George Plouffe, on 6 June 1973 was a signal for that to happen to the Pequots), we also know as a truism. So what was done with them?

The road to the present in the philosophies and programs of the federal government has used in dealing with the “Indian problem” is littered with milestones – more like gravestones – of policies that didn’t work and took a heavy toll on those they were alleged to help – the Indians. Words like “allotment” and “termination” are now but dim memories, dredged up by historians of the zigzags of federal policy towards the tribes. Who remembers the Dawes Act, named for Massachusetts Senator Henry L. Dawes, who though he was doing the Indians a favor by teaching them the virtues of “selfishness” Carlisle College, if remembered at all, is done so for Jim Thorpe’s football prowess, not as part of a concerted effort to separate Indian children from their parents and drill into them, as if they were juvenile West Pointers, the white man’s superior culture.

John Collier’s name is all but forgotten today, except by sensitive Indians, for he was the BIA director under the New Deal, who strove valiantly to let the Indians be themselves and run their own affairs. Was the Indians Claims Commission, finally established by law in 1946, after many years of trying, really a big step forward in settling Indian land claims, or just an impediment, as it seemed to Tom Tureen in prosecuting the Maine Indians’ claim? Who could believe today that the hated ‘termination’ attempts, started in the Eisenhower administration, of stripping the tribes of their independent status and their link to the federal government would be finally halted by Richard Nixon?

Among the more polemic of current American Indian writers, it is fashionable to accuse white Americans of concerted, deliberate genocide vis-à-vis the native tribes. Certainly, there were those who acted upon the statement that ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”   In Maine we had our James Cargill who, when acquitted of murdering peaceable Indian men, women and children, cynically demanded scalp bounties for his victims. [ Passamaquoddy leader Joseph “Cozy” Nicholas  agreed  that “The Indian population inn the U.S. has increased quite a bit – especially since John Wayne died”).  But in defense the argument is offered that no announced, official intent existed, as in Nazi Germany, to wipe out an entire people, and that many “righteous Americans” were friends of the Indians, like Thomas L. McKenney or Helen Hunt Jackson, author of A Century of Dishonor, who blew the whistle on the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, or Warren K. Moorehead, the archaeologist who condemned the allotment frauds inn Oklahoma’s and issue A Plea for Justice, his 19124 book detailing his experiences as a conscientious member of the Board of Indian Commissioners.

Even Henry L. Dawes expressed no intent to harm the Indians; he simply believed selfishness was the root of advanced civilization and couldn’t understand why Indians were not motivated to possess and achieve more than their neighbors. His belief in the civilizing power of private property was absolute and, to him, to be civilized was to “wear civilized clothes, cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey, and own property.” On the latter score, his “allotment” scheme was guaranteed to do exactly that. The Indian Country West of the Mississippi given to the displaced “civilized tribes” like the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, etc. was to be broken up into individual allotments, so that each Indian would have his or her own homestead. The “surplus” tribal land not needed for this purpose was to be sold to the U.S. government and redistributed to non-Indians.

Senator Henry Teller of Colorado saw Dawes’s bill in a different light. Its real aim, he argued in debate, was “to get at the Indians’ land and open it up for resettlement.” In February 1887 the Dawes Act became law, was not repealed until after the Meriam Report of 1928, and caused Oklahoma Indians, alone, by 1934 to lose almost three-quarters of their land – a reduction from 138 million acres to 47 million acres. Land theft, yes, but genocide?

The use of such emotional language was concurrent with the rise of Indian activism that emerged inn the 1960s as long-simmering Indian grievances began to come to a boil. In the interim a period of passivity had seemingly set in among the tribes, compounded by a steady loss of population and dependency on others once their traditional modes of living were no longer possible.

Maine, itself, was something of a backwater, and the condition of its tribes and bands in the latter half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century was close to invisible – a mere curiosity, if noted at all.

Lives of quiet desperation – to use Thoreau’s expression- were being lived among the Penobscots, Passamaquoddy, Maliseets, and Micmacs, and the rest of the state and the world barely noticed.

[The invocation of the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790- by which no agreement with the Indians could be made without an Act of Congress, which was ignored by Massachusetts and subsequently by the State of Maine from the beginning- in the Land Claims Suit- settled in 1980- changed things but did not solve all the tribes’ problems, e.g. their fight for the environment and the right to open a casino. ]

 The book profiles  Maine Indians, their history  and their leaders in great detail.  He has traveled broadly in the "Fourth World" of indigenous peoples world-wide and has great Bibliography.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Reply to Chomsky by Chris Knight

Letters, LRB 13 July 2017

Much as I  admire Noam Chomsky’s politics, I have to take him to task for trying to dragoon sympathizers like myself into accepting his linguistics as ‘science’ ( Letters, 15 June). I can’t accept that the biological capacity underlying language didn’t gradually evolve, that it had no precursors but instead sprang up, perfectly formed, via a single mutation, or that it wasn’t designed for communication but remained inactive in speechless individuals for millennia following its installation. These notions are so asocial, apolitical and devoid of practical application that I can only assume Chomsky favored them to keep his conscience clear: he needed them to ensure that his militarily funded linguistics couldn’t possibly have any military use.

That is the argument of my book: not that Chomsky colluded with his military sponsors but that, given his situation at MIT, he had to move mountains to avoid collusion. In his letter, Chomsky claims that I sidestep his central role in resisting the US war effort in Vietnam. In fact his courageous resistance to the US war machine is my central theme. Had these not been his politics, he wouldn’t have needed to make his work under military funding so utterly useless.

Chomsky says that if my argument were true, it would have been logical for him to have switched between one approach to language and another as military funding waxed and waned. But  his entire intellectual milieu was shaped by military preoccupations, the dream of accurate machine translation among them. Chomsky’s concept of language as

I accept that Einstein’s theory of relativity would have been just as scientifically credible whether funded by the church, the military or no one at all,. But when something doesn’t work as science, makes no sense, has no practical application and essentially no connection to the rest of science? Then we have to seek a different explanation for its prevalence.

London SE22

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Excerpts from Laurent Binet's Infranovel


Rene Bousquet was a lifelong friend of Francois Mitterand. But that is far from his worst offense.

Bousquet is not a cop like Barbie, or a militiaman like Touvier; nor is he a prefect like Papon in Bordeaux. He is a high-level politician destined for a brilliant career, but who chooses the path of collaboration and gets mixed up in the deportation of Jews. He is the one who ensures that the raid on Vel d’Hiv (code name Spring Wind) is carried out by the French police rather than the Germans. He is thus responsible for what is probably the most infamous deed in the history of the French nation [the raid on the Velodrome d’Hiver took place on July 16-17, 1942, And involved the arrests of 13,152 Jews, including 5,802 women and 4,051 children. They were sent to concentration camps. Only 25 people survived].  That it was committed in the name of the French state obviously changes nothing. How many World Cups will we have to win in order to erase such a stain?

After the war, Bousquet survives the purge of Nazi collaborators that took place in France, but his participation in the Vichy government nevertheless deprives him of the political career that appeared to be his destiny. He doesn’t live on the streets, though, and gets positions on various boards of directors, including that of the newspaper La Depeche du Midi; he is the main force behind its hardline anti-Gaullist stance between 1959 and 1971. So, basically, he benefits from the usual tolerance of the ruling class for its most compromised members. He also enjoys the company – not without malice, I imagine- of Simone Weil, an Auschwitz survivor who knows nothing of Bousquet’s collaborationist activities.

His past finally catches up with him in the 1980s, however, and in 1991 he is charged with crimes against humanity.

The investigation ends two years later when he is shot in his own house by a madman. I vividly remember seeing that guy give a press conference just after killing Bousquet and just before the cops arrested him. I remember how pleased with himself he looked as he calmly explained that he’ done it to make people talk about him. I found that utterly idiotic.

This ridiculous moron deprived us of a trial that would have been ten times more interesting than those of Papon and Barbie [put together, more interesting than those of Petain and Laval .  .  . the trial of the century. As punishment for this outrageous attack on history, this unimaginably  cretinous man was given ten years; he served seven, and is now free. I feel a great repulsion and mistrust for someone like Bousquet, but when I think of his assassin, of the immense historical loss that his act represents, of the revelations the trial would have produced and which he has forever denied us, I feel overwhelmed by hate. He didn’t kill any innocents, that’s true, but he is the destroyer of truth. And all so he could appear on TV for three minutes! What a monstrous, stupid, Warholian piece of shit! The only ones that ought to have a moral right to judge whether this man should live or die are his victims- the living and the dead who fell into the Nazis’ claws because of men like him – but I am sure they wanted him alive. How disappointed they musty have been when the heard about this absurd murder! I can feel openly disgust for a society thjat produces such behavior, such lunatics. Pasternak wrote: “I don’t like people who are indifferent to truth.” And worse still are those bastards who are not only indifferent to it but work actively against it. All the secrets that Bousquet took with him to his grave .  .  . I have to stop thinking about this because its making me ill.

Bousquet’s trial: that would have been the French equivalent of Eichmann in Jerusalem.


Anyway, let’s talk about something else. I have just discovered the testimony of Helmut Knochen, appointed chief of the German police in France by Heydrich. He claims to reveal something that Heydrich told him in confidence and which he never repeated to anyone until now,. His testimony dates from June 2000-. Fifty-eight years later!

Heydrich supposedly told him: “The war can no longer be won. We must reach a negotiated peace and I am afraid that Hitler can’t accept that. We must think about this.” We are meant to believe that Heydrich reached this conclusion in May 1942 – before Stalingrad at a time when the Reich had never looked stronger..

Knochen sees in that an extraordinary clairvoyancy on Heydrich’s part. He considers the Blond Beast much more intelligent than all the other Nazi dignitaries. He also believes that Heydrich was thinking of overthrowing Hitler. And based on this he proposes the following theory: that the assassination of Heydrich would have been a high priority for Churchill, who absolutely refused to be deprived of a total victory over Hitler. In other words, the British would have supported the Czech’s  because they were afraid that  a wise Nazi like Heydrich might remove Hitler and save the regime through a negotiated peace.

I suspect it’s in Knochen’s interest to associate himself with the theory of the plot against Hitler, in order to minimize his own (very real) role in the police machine of the Third Reich. It is even perfectly conceivable  that, sixty years later, he actually believes what he is saying. Personally, I think it’s bullshit. But I report it anyway.


A poster on an Internet forum expresses the opinion that Max Aue, Jonathan Littell’s protagonist in The Kindly Ones, ‘rings true because he is the mirror of his age.” What? No! He rings true (for certain, easily duped readers) because he is the mirror of our age: a postmodern nihilist, essentially. At no moment in the novel is it suggested that this character believes in Nazism. On the contrary, he displays an often critical detachment towards National Socialist doctrine – and in that sense, he can hardly be said to reflect the delirious fanaticism prevalent in his time. On the other hand, this detachment, this blasé attitude toward everything, this permanent malaise, this taste for philosophizing, this unspoken amorality, this morose sadism, and this terrible sexual frustration that constantly twists his guts . . .but of course! How did I not see it before? Suddenly, everything is clear. The Kindly Ones is simply “Houellebecq does Nazism.”


I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Caesar by Thomas De Quincey

It is very evident that Dr. Arnold could not have understood the position of politic  in Rome, when he allowed himself to make a favorite of Pompey. The doctor hated aristocrats as he hated the gates of Erebus. Now Pompey was not only the leader of a most selfish aristocracy, but also their tool. Secondly, as if this were not bad enough, that section of the aristocracy to which he had dedicated his services was an odious oligarchy; and to this oligarchy, again, though nominally its head, he was in effect its most submissive tool.

Caesar, on the other hand, if a democrat in the sense of working by democratic agencies, was bending all his efforts to the reconstruction of a new, purer, and enlarged aristocracy, no longer reduced to the necessity of buying and selling the people in mere self-defense. The ever-lasting war of bribery, operating upon universal poverty, the internal disease of Roman society, would have been redressed by Caesar’s measures, and was redressed according to the degree in  which those measures were really brought into action. New judicatures were wanted, new judicial laws, a new aristocracy; by slow degrees a new people, and the right of suffrage exercised within new restrictions – all these things were needed for the cleansing of Rome; and that Caesar would have accomplished this labor of Hercules was the true cause of his assassination. The scoundrels of the  oligarchy felt their doom to be approaching.  It was the just remark of Napoleon, that Brutus (but still more, we may say, Cicero), though falsely accredited as a patriot, was, in fact, the most exclusive and the most selfish of aristocrats.


The graves of the best men, of the noblest martyrs, are, like the graves of the Herrnhuters (the Moravian Brethren), level and indistinguishable from the universal earth:, and, if the earth could give up her secrets, our whole globe would appear a Westminster Abbey laid flat. Ah! What a multitude of tears, what myriads of bloody drops have been shed in secrecy about the three corner trees of earthy – the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, and the tree of freedom – shed, but never reckoned! It is only great periods of calamity that reveal to us our great men, as comets are revealed by total eclipses of the sun. Not merely on the field of battle, but also upon the consecrated soil of virtue, and on the classic ground of truth, thousands of nameless heroes must fall and struggle to build up the footstool from which history surveys the one hero, whose name is embalmed, bleeding –conquering – and resplendent. The grandest of heroic deeds are those which are performed within four walls and in domestic privacy. And, because history records only the self-sacrifice of the male sex, and because she dips her hands only in blood, therefore is it that in the eyes of the unseen spirit of the world our annals appear doubtless far more beautiful and noble than in our own.

To die for truth – is not to die for one’s country, but to die for the world. Truth like the Venus de Medici, will pass down in thirty fragments to posterity: but posterity will collect and recompose them into a goddess. Then also thy temple, O eternal Truth! That now stands half below the earth, made hollow by the sepulchers of its witnesses, will raise itself in the total majesty of its proportions; and will stand in monumental granite; and every pillar on which it rests, will fixed in the grave of a martyr. [Analects of Richter]

Immunology by Yiyun Li

I came to this country as an aspiring immunologist. I had chosen the field – if one does not count the practical motive of wanting a reason to leave China and of having a skill to make a living – because I had liked the working concept of the immune system.. Its job is to detect and attack non-self; it has memories, some as long lasting as life; its memories can go awry selectively, or worse, indiscriminately, leading the system to mistake self as foreign, as something to eliminate. The word immune (from the Latin immunis, in - + munia, services, obligations) is among my favorites in the English language, the possession of immunity – to illnesses, to follies, to love and loneliness and troubling thoughts and unalleviated pains – a trait I desired for my characters and myself, knowing all the while the futility of such a wish. Only the lifeless can be immune to life.

One’s intuition is to acquire immunity to those who confirm one’s beliefs about life, and to those who turn one’s beliefs into nothing. The latter are the natural predators of our hearts, the former made into enemies because we are, unlike other species, capable of not only enlarging but also diminishing our precarious selves. .  .  .

There was a time I could write well in Chinese. In school my essays were used as models; in the army, our squad leader gave me the choice between drafting a speech for her and cleaning the toilets or the pigsties – I always chose to write. Once in high school, several classmates and I entered an oratory contest. The winner would represent the class in a patriotic event. When I went on stage, for some mischievous reason, I saw to it that many of the listeners were moved to tears by the poetic and insincere lies I had made up; I moved myself to tears, too. That I could become a successful propaganda writer crossed my mind. I was disturbed. A young person wants to be true to herself and to the world. But what did not occur to me then was to ask: Can one’s intelligence rely entirely on the public language; can one form a precise thought, recall an accurate memory, or even feel a genuine feeling, with only the public language?

In the ideal, argument is a commitment- both parties, by giving and taking, discover something new. But this belief is as naïve as a young person’s idea about the perfection of love. The possessiveness in human nature turns loving or arguing into something entirely different: winning, conquering, owning, destroying.

The talent of argument becomes about finding the right rivals – those who can be awed or bullied into agreement- and dismissing those who cannot be as irrelevant. That talent needs an audience. The world will always quote Mann on Zweig’s death. Yet the latter’s silence prevails.

There is another way to cope with the  same autoimmune condition. A friend is good at arguing against herself from the perspective of others, even when she sees through the fallacy of their arguments. The mind, to avoid targeting itself, becomes two: one which, by aligning with others, is protected; and one which, by staying quiet, eludes being conquered. A self preserved by restraint is the self that will prevail.

To be more than one, to be several, and to live with the consequences, is inevitable. One can err the opposite way, and the belief in being nothing used to seem to me the most logical way to live. Being nothing is being invisible and replaceable; being nothing to others means remaining everything to oneself.  Being nothing is one way to battle the autoimmune condition of the mind. 

My intention  is not to defend suicide. I might have done so at many other times in my life, but I have arrived at a point where defending and disputing my actions are the same argument. Everything I say is scrutinized by myself; not only the words and their logic but also my motives. As a body suffers from an autoimmune disease, my mind targets every feeling and thought it created; a self dissecting itself finds little repose.

 Years ago my husband cautioned me  that writing would require more than a scientific career. No real madness, no real art, he quoted the old Chinese saying, but I had refused to consider it an obstacle. If I had writing, what was there to fear?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Second All-Russian Congress by China Mieville

For those who cleave to it, a paradox of actually existing revolution is that in its potential for utter reconfiguration, it is, precisely, beyond words, a messianic interruption – one that emerges from the quotidian. Unsayable, yet the culmination of everyday exhortations. Beyond language and of it, beyond representation and not.

The All – Russian Congress, 27 October, 1917

Martov remained in the Assembly Hall with the mass meeting. He was still desperate for a compromise. Now he tabled a motion criticizing the Bolsheviks for pre-empting Congress’s will, suggesting – again – that negotiations begin for a broad, inclusive socialist government. This was close to his proposal two hours before – which, Lenin’s desire to break with the moderates notwithstanding, the Bolsheviks did not oppose.

But two hours was a long time.

As Martov sat, there was a commotion, and the Bolsheviks Duma faction pushed into the hall, to the delegates delight and surprise. They had come, they said, ‘to triumph or dies with the All-Russian Congress.’

When the cheering subsided, Trotsky himself rose to respond to Martov.

The rising of the masses of the people requires no justification. What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. We hardened the revolutionary energy of the Petersburg workers and soldiers. We openly forged the will of the masses for an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. The masses of the people followed our banner, and our insurrection was victorious. Now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise ?With those wretched groups which have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we’ve had a full view of them. No one in Russian is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by millions of workers and peasants represented in this congress, who they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: into the dustbin of history!

The room erupted. Amid the loud sustained applause, Martov stood up. “Then we’ll leave! He shouted.

As he turned, a delegate barred his way. The man stated at him with an expression of sorrow and accusation.

‘And we had thought’, he said, ‘that Martov at least would remain with us.’

“One day you will understand’, said Martov, his voice shaking, ‘the crime in which you are taking part.’

He walked out.

As if to underline the point. The departed moderates were, at that very moment, labeling the meeting only a ‘private gathering of Bolshevik  delegates.’ ‘The Central Executive Committee’, they announced, ‘considers the Second Congress as not having taken place.”

In the hall, the debate about conciliation dragged into the darkest hours. But by now the weight of opinion was with Lunacharsky, and with Trotsky.

 .   .   .   .   .   .   .  .  .

There have been a hundred years of crude, ahistorical, ignorant, bad-faith and opportunist attacks on October. Without echoing such sneers, we must nonetheless interrogate the revolution.

The old regime was vile and violent, while Russian liberalism was weak, and quick to make common cause with reaction. All the same, did October lead inexorably to Stalin? It is an old question, but one still very much alive. Is the gulag the telos of 1917?

That objective strains faced the new regime is clear. There are subjective factors, too, questions we must pose about decisions made.

The left Mensheviks, committed anti-war internationalists, have a case to answer, with their walk-out in October 1917. Coming straight after the congress voted for coalition, this decision shocked and upset even some of those who went along with it. “I was thunderstruck,’ said Sukhanov, of an action he never ceased to regret. ‘No one contested the legality of the congress .  .  .  [This action] meant a formal break with the masses and with the revolution.”

Nothing is given. But had the internationalists of the other groups remained within the Second Congress, Lenin and Trotsky’s intransigence and skepticism about the coalition might have been undercut, given how many other Bolsheviks, at all levels of the party, were advocates of cooperation. A less monolithic and embattled government just might have been the outcome.

This is not to deny the constraints and impact of isolation – nor to exonerate the Bolsheviks for their own mistakes, or worse.

In his short piece “Our Revolution”, written in 1923 in response to Sukhanov’s memoir, Lenin rather startlingly allows as ‘incontrovertible’ that Russia had not been ‘ready’ for revolution. He wonders pugnaciously, however, whether a people ‘influenced by the hopelessness of the situation’ could be blamed for ‘flinging itself into a struggle that would offer it at least some chance of securing conditions for the further development of civilization that were somewhat unusual.’

It is not absurd to argue that the ground-down of Russia had no real choice but to act, on the chance that in doing so they might alter the very parameters of the situation. That things might thereby improve.  

The party’s shift after Lenin’s death, from the plaintive, embattled sense that there had been little alternative but to strive in imperfect conditions, to the later bad hope of Socialism in One Country, is the baleful result of recasting necessity as a virtue.