Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Libraries Gave Us Power

'Culture is the conjunction of the skills and knowledge of historical mankind, the mankind of nations and classes. Knowledge grows out of the activities of man, out of his struggle with the forces of nature; knowledge serves to improve these activities, to spread the methods of combining each obstacle, and to increase the power of man. If we assess the meaning of culture in this way we shall grasp more easily the meaning of Leninism. For Leninism, too, is knowledge and skills - and also, not knowledge for its own sake but knowledge for skills. In this sense, although not only in this one, Leninism represents the product and consummation of all of man's previous culture. Leninism is the knowledge and ability to turn culture, i.e. all the knowledge and skills amassed in previous centuries, to the interests of the working masses. Therein lies the essence of Leninism.'

So suggested Leon Trotsky during a remarkable speech on 'Leninism and Library Work' he gave to the First All-Union Congress of Librarians in 1924 (don't look for it online - those interested will have to dig it out in the excellent collection of Trotsky's writings - Problems of Everyday Life).

In a very readable and insightful recent interview to mark the 70th anniversary of Trotsky's murder, Tariq Ali noted that he now referred to himself as no longer a 'Trotskyist' but as a 'Trotskyish', and suggested that

'one of the big problems with Trotsky’s own evolution is that, because he was constantly being accused of not being a Leninist, he himself became a sort of semireligious Leninist; whereas he had very real and accurate criticisms of Lenin in the past. I always felt, and now I really feel it, that this was a real, real tragedy for that man. Such a powerful intellect. He must have known the mistakes they made and how these mistakes could or should have been avoided, but didn’t dare say it for fear of what his political opponents would do with it. That must have been torture for him and I think, being who he was, he was very, very aware of that.'

So for example the quote from Trotsky above - that 'Leninism represents the product and consummation of all of man's previous culture' (no small claim there for Leninism then) while in someways profound, is also a little 'semireligious'.

On the subject of 'Leninism and Library work' by the way, Trotsky was of the opinion that in Soviet Russia, 'a librarian is not an official dealing with books, but rather he is, must be, must become a cultural warrior, a Red Army soldier fighting for socialist culture' and noted that Leninism 'teaches the working class to pick out from the gigantic store of culture what is most necessary today for its social liberation and for the construction of society along new lines' and commented that 'every teacher, every worker correspondent, every liquidator of illiteracy, every librarian must understand this essence and realise it in himself, if he wishes to become not simply an official of the Soviet state, but rather a conscious worker for culture, who with book, article, and newspaper, must penetrate deeper and deeper into the minds of the masses, as a miner with a pick penetrates deeper and deeper into layers of coal.'

While we are on the subject of 'Leninism and Library work' - it would be most amiss of me were I not to remind readers of Histomat who have not already done ss that they should really go away and sign the petition to save the CLR James Library in London which is under threat from a gang of bureaucratic philistines on Hackney Council. Libraries in Britain - like many other essential public services - are under attack more broadly by the Con-Dem coalition.

Finally, this seems as an appropriate place as any to highlight a fascinating interview with the famous Marxist historian of the Mexican Revolution Adolfo Gilly - an activist in the Trotskyist movement from the 1940s onwards - in the latest New Left Review. Since not everyone will have access to this online, I will reprint a small section from the interview when Gilly was asked about early intellectual influences, and is full of fascinating references to a whole range of revolutionary literature - much of which I expect will only be able to be tracked down with the assistance of a library.

I came of age in a country [Argentina] that was not in the First World, but was not a peasant country either, which gave it a very particular form. My initial commitment to the revolutionary movement came first—books came afterwards. What I read seemed rather to confirm what my experience and intuition had already been telling me. In fact, I think this is generally the case: one is led towards rebellion by sentiments, not by thoughts. At the end of his statement to the Dewey Commission, Trotsky described being drawn to the workers’ quarters in Nikolayev at the age of eighteen by his ‘faith in reason, in truth, in human solidarity’, not by Marxism. But perhaps the most crucial sentiment is that of justice—the realization that you are not in agreement with this world. There is a story that Ernst Bloch was asked by his supervisor, Georg Simmel, to provide a one-page summary of his thesis before Simmel would agree to work on it. A week later, Bloch obliged with one sentence: ‘What exists cannot be true.’ The thesis later became The Principle of Hope. It was this kind of ethical moment that was crucial for me—the discovery that there was a necessary connection between justice and truth.

I remember reading Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed when I was eighteen, but what really brought me to Trotskyism were two articles of his on Lázaro Cárdenas that analysed the post-Revolutionary Mexican government’s continual oscillations between subordination to imperialism and forwarding workers’ interests. According to Trotsky, this variation was due to the weakness of the national bourgeoisie, and to the relative power of the proletariat. In his view, cardenismo was a sui generis form of Bonapartism, attempting to raise itself ‘above classes’, and making concessions to the workers in order to secure some room for manoeuvre against foreign capital. I was very struck by the force of Trotsky’s arguments.

If I had to choose a handful of books that made a particular impression, there would be André Breton’s L’amour fou, which I read in 1949, and C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, which I read in French on a train to Bolivia in the late 1950s, as well as his study of Melville, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. Curiously, when reading Moby Dick some fifteen years earlier I had been struck by the very same sentence from which James took his title. Melville and James are marked by the same refusal of injustice I mentioned earlier. I also found it in José María Arguedas, a Peruvian who wrote an extraordinary autobiographical novel called Los ríos profundos, and in the poetry of another Peruvian, César Vallejo. And of course it’s present in Frantz Fanon. I recall buying Les damnés de la terre in a bookshop on the via Veneto in 4 December 1961—I remember the day exactly because I read the book in one sitting, and it made a big impact on me. I discovered Gramsci around the same time, during a stay in Italy. I also read the work of Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti and the group around Quaderni rossi, and of course the writings of Rossana Rossanda, Pietro Ingrao and the Leftist tendencies inside the pci. I became familiar with Subaltern Studies and the work of Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee in the late 1980s. I only really read Edward Thompson in the 1990s. His Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common lay a lot of emphasis on the category of experience, which in my view is extremely important to Marxist thought.

Taken together, all of these works have in common a concern with the preoccupations of the people, based on the impulse to understand their world and what motivates them. The reasons why people rise up in revolution are not incidental, they are substantive. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky writes that the masses didn’t rise up because they were thinking of the future, but because what they were experiencing in the present was intolerable. Walter Benjamin expresses a similar thought in his theses on history. When Guha writes of the ‘autonomous domain’ of the subaltern, and of ways of conducting politics ‘below’ official politics, it comes from his experience as a communist militant in India. In a way, when I wrote on the Mexican Revolution I was concerned with the same phenomena of social life as in Guha’s work, though mine took a more elemental form. Many look at the support for Perón or Cárdenas and say, they were Peronists, or cardenistas. But the parties in question were just the epiphenomenal form taken by the desires of all these people. Parties often think they are the ones organizing and instructing the people on how to mobilize, but that’s not the case—they were the best institutional form for securing particular ends, and the impulse comes from elsewhere, from long years of suffering, from an intolerable reality.

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At 11:35 pm, Anonymous Grim and Dim said...

In 1966 I took part in the smallest demo I have ever been on. Fifteen of us marched from Marble Arch to the Mexican embassy to demand the release from jail of Adolfo Gilly As it was Sunday afternoon the embassy was closed, so we put our request through the letter-box.

What Gilly minimises in the NLR piece is that for many years he was a follower of Juan Posadas. Posadas is best known for his belief in flying saucers, but a central plank of Posadist policy was the demand for a preemptive Russian nuclear strike. For some reason this never really caught on with the Western working class.


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