4. Slavoj Zizek, 2001.
Numero Uno—“ISuch obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone — that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and of some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized — though I should not like to be put to giving names — but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.
Such immortal vermin, true enough, get their share of the fruits of human progress, and so they may be said, in a way, to have their part in it. The most ignorant man, when he is ill, may enjoy whatever boons and usufructs modern medicine may offer — that is, provided he is too poor to choose his own doctor. He is free, if he wants to, to take a bath. The literature of the world is at his disposal in public libraries. He may look at works of art. He may hear good music. He has at hand a thousand devices for making life less wearisome and more tolerable: the telephone, railroads, bichloride tablets, newspapers, sewers, correspondence schools, delicatessen. But he had no more to do with bringing these things into the world than the horned cattle in the fields, and he does no more to increase them today than the birds of the air.
On the contrary, he is generally against them, and sometimes with immense violence. Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man’s possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands.
The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life. Certainly it cannot have gone unnoticed that their membership is recruited, in the overwhelming main, from the lower orders — that no man of any education or other human dignity belongs to them. What they propose to do, at bottom and in brief, is to make the superior man infamous — by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law.
Such organizations, of course, must have leaders; there must be men in them whose ignorance and imbecility are measurably less abject than the ignorance and imbecility of the average. These super-Chandala often attain to a considerable power, especially in democratic states. Their followers trust them and look up to them; sometimes, when the pack is on the loose, it is necessary to conciliate them. But their puissance cannot conceal their incurable inferiority. They belong to the mob as surely as their dupes, and the thing that animates them is precisely the mob’s hatred of superiority. Whatever lies above the level of their comprehension is of the devil. A glass of wine delights civilized men; they themselves, drinking it, would get drunk. Ergo, wine must be prohibited. The hypothesis of evolution is credited by all men of education; they themselves can’t understand it. Ergo, its teaching must be put down.
This simple fact explains such phenomena as the Tennessee buffoonery. Nothing else can. We must think of human progress, not as of something going on in the race in general, but as of something going on in a small minority, perpetually beleaguered in a few walled towns. Now and then the horde of barbarians outside breaks through, and we have an armed effort to halt the process. That is, we have a Reformation, a French Revolution, a war for democracy, a Great Awakening. The minority is decimated and driven to cover. But a few survive — and a few are enough to carry on.
The inferior man’s reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex — because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are such short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plow can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged — and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple — and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.
The popularity of Fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters.
Politics and the fine arts repeat the story. The issues that the former throw up are often so complex that, in the present state of human knowledge, they must remain impenetrable, even to the most enlightened men. How much easier to follow a mountebank with a shibboleth — a Coolidge, a Wilson or a Roosevelt! The arts, like the sciences, demand special training, often very difficult. But in jazz there are simple rhythms, comprehensible even to savages.
What all this amounts to is that the human race is divided into two sharply differentiated and mutually antagonistic classes, almost two genera — a small minority that plays with ideas and is capable of taking them in, and a vast majority that finds them painful, and is thus arrayed against them, and against all who have traffic with them. The intellectual heritage of the race belongs to the minority, and to the minority only. The majority has no more to do with it than it has to do with ecclesiastic politics on Mars. In so far as that heritage is apprehended, it is viewed with enmity. But in the main it is not apprehended at all.
That is why Beethoven survives. Of the 110,000,000 so-called human beings who now live in the United States, flogged and crazed by Coolidge, Rotary, the Ku Klux and the newspapers, it is probable that at least 108,000,000 have never heard of him at all. To these immortals, made in God’s image, one of the greatest artists the human race has ever produced is not even a name. So far as they are concerned he might as well have died at birth. The gorgeous and incomparable beauties that he created are nothing to them. They get no value out of the fact that he existed. They are completely unaware of what he did in the world, and would not be interested if they were told.
The fact saves good Ludwig’s bacon. His music survives because it lies outside the plane of the popular apprehension, like the colors beyond violet or the concept of honor. If it could be brought within range, it would at once arouse hostility. Its complexity would challenge; its lace of moral purpose would affright. Soon there would be a movement to put it down, and Baptist clergymen would range the land denouncing it, and in the end some poor musician, taken in the un-American act of playing it, would be put on trial before a jury of Ku Kluxers, and railroaded to the calaboose. …
Dayton, Tenn., July 9. — On the eve of the great contest Dayton is full of sickening surges and tremors of doubt. Five or six weeks ago, when the infidel Scopes was first laid by the heels, there was no uncertainty in all this smiling valley. The town boomers leaped to the assault as one man. Here was an unexampled, almost a miraculous chance to get Dayton upon the front pages, to make it talked about, to put it upon the map. But how now?
Today, with the curtain barely rung up and the worst buffooneries to come, it is obvious to even town boomers that getting upon the map, like patriotism, is not enough. The getting there must be managed discreetly, adroitly, with careful regard to psychological niceties. The boomers of Dayton, alas, had no skill at such things, and the experts they called in were all quacks. The result now turns the communal liver to water. Two months ago the town was obscure and happy. Today it is a universal joke.
I have been attending the permanent town meeting that goes on in Robinson’s drug store, trying to find out what the town optimists have saved from the wreck. All I can find is a sort of mystical confidence that God will somehow come to the rescue to reward His old and faithful partisans as they deserve — that good will flow eventually out of what now seems to be heavily evil. More specifically, it is believed that settlers will be attracted to the town as to some refuge from the atheism of the great urban Sodoms and Gomorrahs.
But will these refugees bring any money with them? Will they buy lots and build houses, Will they light the fires of the cold and silent blast furnace down the railroad tracks? On these points, I regret to report, optimism has to call in theology to aid it. Prayer can accomplish a lot. It can cure diabetes, find lost pocketbooks and restrain husbands from beating their wives. But is prayer made any more efficacious by giving a circus first? Coming to this thought, Dayton begins to sweat.
The town, I confess, greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village, with darkies snoozing on the horse-blocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town full of charm and even beauty — a somewhat smallish but nevertheless very attractive Westminster or Balair.
The houses are surrounded by pretty gardens, with cool green lawns and stately trees. The two chief streets are paved from curb to curb. The stores carry good stocks and have a metropolitan air, especially the drug, book, magazine, sporting goods and soda-water emporium of the estimable Robinson. A few of the town ancients still affect galluses and string ties, but the younger bucks are very nattily turned out. Scopes himself, even in his shirt sleeves, would fit into any college campus in America save that of Harvard alone.
Nor is there any evidence in the town of that poisonous spirit which usually shows itself when Christian men gather to defend the great doctrine of their faith. I have heard absolutely no whisper that Scopes is in the pay of the Jesuits, or that the whisky trust is backing him, or that he is egged on by the Jews who manufacture lascivious moving pictures. On the contrary, the Evolutionists and the Anti-Evolutionists seem to be on the best of terms, and it is hard in a group to distinguish one from another.
The basic issues of the case, indeed, seem to be very little discussed at Dayton. What interests everyone is its mere strategy. By what device, precisely, will Bryan trim old Clarence Darrow? Will he do it gently and with every delicacy of forensics, or will he wade in on high gear and make a swift butchery of it? For no one here seems to doubt that Bryan will win — that is, if the bout goes to a finish. What worries the town is the fear that some diabolical higher power will intervene on Darrow’s side — that is, before Bryan heaves him through the ropes.
The lack of Christian heat that I have mentioned is probably due in part to the fact that the fundamentalists are in overwhelming majority as far as the eye can reach — according to most local statisticians, in a majority of at least nine-tenths. There are, in fact, only two downright infidels in all Rhea county, and one of them is charitably assumed to be a bit balmy. The other, a yokel roosting far back in the hills, is probably simply a poet got into the wrong pew. The town account of him is to the effect that he professes to regard death as a beautiful adventure.
When the local ecclesiastics begin alarming the peasantry with word pictures of the last sad scene, and sulphurous fumes begin to choke even Unitarians, this skeptical rustic comes forward with his argument that it is foolish to be afraid of what one knows so little about — that, after all, there is no more genuine evidence that anyone will ever go to hell than there is that the Volstead act will ever be enforced.
Such blasphemous ideas naturally cause talk in a Baptist community, but both of the infidels are unmolested. Rhea county, in fact, is proud of its tolerance, and apparently with good reason. The klan has never got a foothold here, though it rages everywhere else in Tennessee. When the first kleagles came in they got the cold shoulder, and pretty soon they gave up the county as hopeless. It is run today not by anonymous daredevils in white nightshirts, but by well-heeled Free-masons in decorous white aprons. In Dayton alone there are sixty thirty-second-degree Masons — an immense quota for so small a town. They believe in keeping the peace, and so even the stray Catholics of the town are treated politely, though everyone naturally regrets they are required to report to the Pope once a week.
It is probably this unusual tolerance, and not any extraordinary passion for the integrity of Genesis, that has made Dayton the scene of a celebrated case, and got its name upon the front pages, and caused its forward-looking men to begin to wonder uneasily if all advertising is really good advertising. The trial of Scopes is possible here simply because it can be carried on here without heat — because no one will lose any sleep even if the devil comes to the aid of Darrow and Malone, and Bryan gets a mauling. The local intelligentsia venerate Bryan as a Christian, but it was not as a Christian that they called him in, but as one adept at attracting the newspaper boys — in brief, as a showman. As I have said, they now begin to mistrust the show, but they still believe that he will make a good one, win or lose.
Elsewhere, North or South, the combat would become bitter. Here it retains the lofty qualities of the duello. I gather the notion, indeed, that the gentlemen who are most active in promoting it are precisely the most lacking in hot conviction — that it is, in its local aspects, rather a joust between neutrals than a battle between passionate believers. Is it a mere coincidence that the town clergy have been very carefully kept out of it? There are several Baptist brothers here of such powerful gifts that when they begin belaboring sinners the very rats of the alleys flee to the hills. They preach dreadfully. But they are not heard from today. By some process to me unknown they have been induced to shut up — a far harder business, I venture, than knocking out a lion with a sandbag. But the sixty thirty-second degree Masons of Dayton have somehow achieved it.
Thus the battle joins and the good red sun shines down. Dayton lies in a fat and luxuriant valley. The bottoms are green with corn, pumpkins and young orchards and the hills are full of reliable moonshiners, all save one of them Christian men. We are not in the South here, but hanging on to the North. Very little cotton is grown in the valley. The people in politics are Republicans and put Coolidge next to Lincoln and John Wesley. The fences are in good repair. The roads are smooth and hard. The scene is set for a high-toned and even somewhat swagger combat. When it is over all the participants save Bryan will shake hands. …
Dayton, Tenn., July 10. — The trial of the infidel Scopes, beginning here this hot, lovely morning, will greatly resemble, I suspect, the trial of a prohibition agent accused of mayhem in Union Hill, N.J. That is to say, it will be conducted with the most austere regard for the highest principles of jurisprudence. Judge and jury will go to extreme lengths to assure the prisoner the last and least of his rights. He will be protected in his person and feelings by the full military and naval power of the State of Tennessee. No one will be permitted to pull his nose, to pray publicly for his condemnation or even to make a face at him. But all the same he will be bumped off inevitably when the time comes, and to the applause of all right-thinking men.The real trial, in truth, will not begin until Scopes is convicted and ordered to the hulks. Then the prisoner will be the Legislature of Tennessee, and the jury will be that great fair, unimpassioned body of enlightened men which has already decided that a horse hair put into a bottle will turn into a snake and that the Kaiser started the late war. What goes on here is simply a sort of preliminary hearing, with music by the village choir. For it will be no more possible in this Christian valley to get a jury unprejudiced against Scopes than would be possible in Wall Street to get a jury unprejudiced against a Bolshevik.
I speak of prejudice in its purely philosophical sense. As I wrote yesterday, there is an almost complete absence, in these pious hills, of the ordinary and familiar malignancy of Christian men. If the Rev. Dr. Crabbe ever spoke of bootleggers as humanely and affectionately as the town theologians speak of Scopes, and even Darrow and Malone, his employers would pelt him with their spyglasses and sit on him until the ambulance came from Mount Hope. There is absolutely no bitterness on tap. But neither is there any doubt. It has been decided by acclamation, with only a few infidels dissenting, that the hypothesis of evolution is profane, inhumane and against God, and all that remains is to translate that almost unanimous decision into the jargon of the law and so have done.
The town boomers have banqueted Darrow as well as Bryan, but there is no mistaking which of the two has the crowd, which means the venire of tried and true men. Bryan has been oozing around the country since his first day here, addressing this organization and that, presenting the indubitable Word of God in his caressing, ingratiating way, and so making unanimity doubly unanimous. From the defense yesterday came hints that this was making hay before the sun had legally begun to shine — even that it was a sort of contempt of court. But no Daytonian believes anything of the sort. What Bryan says doesn’t seem to these congenial Baptists and Methodists to be argument; it seems to be a mere graceful statement of the obvious.
Meanwhile, reinforcements continue to come in, some of them from unexpected sources. I had the honor of being present yesterday when Col. Patrick Callahan, of Louisville, marched up at the head of his cohort of 250,000,000 Catholic fundamentalists. The two colonels embraced, exchanged a few military and legal pleasantries and then retired up a steep stairway to the office of the Hicks brothers to discuss strategy. Colonel Callahan’s followers were present, of course, only by a legal fiction; the town of Dayton would not hold so large an army. In the actual flesh there were only the colonel himself and his aide-de-camp. Nevertheless, the 250,000,000 were put down as present and recorded as voting.
Later on I had the misfortune to fall into a dispute with Colonel Callahan on a point of canon law. It was my contention that the position of the Roman Church, on matters of doctrine, is not ordinarily stated by laymen — that such matters are usually left to high ecclesiastical authorities, headed by the Bishop of Rome. I also contended, perhaps somewhat fatuously, that there seemed to be a considerable difference of opinion regarding organic evolution among these authorities — that it was possible to find in their writings both ingenious arguments for it and violent protests against it. All these objections Colonel Callahan waived away with a genial gesture. He was here, he said, to do what he could for the authority of the Sacred Scriptures and the aiding and comforting of his old friend, Bryan, and it was all one to him whether atheists yelled or not. Then he began to talk about prohibition, which he favors, and the germ theory of diseases, which he regards as bilge.
A somewhat more plausible volunteer has turned up in the person of Pastor T.T. Martin, of Blue Mountain, Miss. He has hired a room and stocked it with pamphlets bearing such titles as ‘Evolution a Menace,’ ‘Hell and the High Schools,’ and ‘God or Gorilla,’ and addresses connoisseurs of scientific fallacy every night on a lot behind the Courthouse. Pastor Martin, a handsome and amiable old gentleman with a great mop of snow-white hair, was a professor of science in a Baptist college for years, and has given profound study to the biological sections of the Old Testament.
He told me today that he regarded the food regulations in Leviticus as so sagacious that their framing must have been a sort of feat even for divinity. The flesh of the domestic hog, he said, is a rank poison as ordinarily prepared for the table, though it is probably harmless when smoked and salted, as in bacon. He said that his investigations had shown that seven and a half out of every thirteen cows are quite free of tuberculosis, but that twelve out of every thirteen hogs have it in an advanced and highly communicable form. The Jews, protected by their piety against devouring pork, are immune to the disease. In all history, he said, there is authentic record of but one Jew who died of tuberculosis.
The presence of Pastor Martin and Colonel Callahan has given renewed confidence to the prosecution. The former offers proof that men of science are, after all, not unanimously atheists, and the latter that there is no division between Christians in the face of the common enemy. But though such encouragements help, they are certainly not necessary. All they really supply is another layer of icing on the cake. Dayton will give Scopes a rigidly fair and impartial trial. All his Constitutional rights will be jealously safeguarded. The question whether he voted for or against Coolidge will not be permitted to intrude itself into the deliberations of the jury, or the gallant effort of Colonel Bryan to get at and establish the truth. He will be treated very politely. Dayton, indeed, is proud of him, as Sauk Center, Minn., is proud of Sinclair Lewis and Whittingham, Vt., of Brigham Young. But it is lucky for Scopes that sticking pins into Genesis is still only a misdemeanor in Tennessee, punishable by a simple fine, with no alternative of the knout, the stone pile or exile to the Dry Tortugas.” H.L. Mencken, “Homo Neanderthalensis,” “Mencken Finds Daytonians Full of Sickening Doubts About the Value of Publicity,” & “Impossibility of Obtaining Fair Jury Insures Scopes’ Conviction, Says Mencken;” all for the Baltimore Evening Sun, June, July, 1925
Numero Dos—“Chinua Achebe’s emergence as ‘the founding father of African literature … in the English language,’ in the words of the Harvard University philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, could very well be traced to his encounter in the early fifties with Joyce Cary’s novel Mister Johnson, set in Achebe’s native Nigeria. Achebe read it while studying at the University College in Idaban during the last years of British colonial rule, and in a curriculum full of Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Mister Johnson stood out as one of the few books about Africa. Time magazine had recently declared Mister Johnson the ‘best book ever written about Africa,’ but Achebe and his classmates had quite a different reaction. The students saw the Nigerian hero as an ’embarrassing nitwit,’ as Achebe writes in his new book, Home and Exile, and detected in the Irish author’s descriptions of Nigerians ‘an undertow of uncharitableness … a contagion of distaste, hatred, and mockery.’ Mister Johnson, Achebe writes, ‘open[ed] my eyes to the fact that my home was under attack and that my home was not merely a house or a town but, more importantly, an awakening story.’
In 1958, Achebe responded with his own novel about Nigeria, Things Fall Apart, which was one of the first books to tell the story of European colonization from an African perspective. (It has since become a classic, published in fifty languages around the world.) Things Fall Apart marked a turning point for African authors, who in the fifties and sixties began to take back the narrative of the so-called ‘dark continent.’
Home and Exile, which grew out of three lectures Achebe gave at Harvard in 1998, describes this transition to a new era in literature. The book is both a kind of autobiography and a rumination on the power stories have to create a sense of dispossession or to confer strength, depending on who is wielding the pen. Achebe depicts his gradual realization that Mister Johnsonwas just one in a long line of books written by Westerners that presented Africans to the world in a way that Africans didn’t agree with or recognize, and he examines the ‘process of ‘re-storying’ peoples who had been knocked silent by all kinds of dispossession.’ He ends with a hope for the twenty-first century — that this ‘re-storying’ will continue and will eventually result in a ‘balance of stories among the world’s peoples.’
Achebe encourages writers from the Third World to stay where they are and write about their own countries, as a way to help achieve this balance. Yet he himself has lived in the United States for the past ten years — a reluctant exile. In 1990, Achebe was in a car accident in Nigeria, and was paralyzed from the waist down. While recuperating in a London hospital, he received a call from Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, offering him a teaching job and a house built for his needs. Achebe thought he would be at Bard, a small school in a quiet corner of the Hudson River Valley, for only a year or two, but the political situation in Nigeria kept worsening. During the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, who ruled from 1993 to 1998, much of Nigeria’s wealth — the country has extensive oil fields — went into the pocket of its leader, and public infrastructure that had been quite good, like hospitals and roads, withered. In 1999, Olusegan Obasanjo became Nigeria’s first democratically elected President since 1983, and the situation in Nigeria is improving, albeit slowly and shakily. Achebe is watching from afar, waiting for his country to rebuild itself enough for him to return.
Achebe, who is sixty-nine, has written five novels, including Arrow of God (1964) and Anthills of the Savannah (1987), five books of nonfiction, and several collections of short stories and poems. Achebe spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound‘s Katie Bacon at his home in Annandale-on-Hudson, in New York.
You have been called the progenitor of the modern African novel, and Things Fall Apart has maintained its resonance in the decades since it was written. Have you been surprised by the effect the book has had?
Was I surprised? Yes, at the beginning. There was no African literature as we know it today. And so I had no idea when I was writing Things Fall Apart whether it would even be accepted or published. All of this was new — there was nothing by which I could gauge how it was going to be received.
But, of course, something doesn’t continue to surprise you every day. After a while I began to understand why the book had resonance. I began to understand my history even better. It wasn’t as if when I wrote it I was an expert in the history of the world. I was a very young man. I knew I had a story, but how it fit into the story of the world — I really had no sense of that. Its meaning for my Igbo people was clear to me, but I didn’t know how other people elsewhere would respond to it. Did it have any meaning or resonance for them? I realized that it did when, to give you just one example, the whole class of a girls’ college in South Korea wrote to me, and each one expressed an opinion about the book. And then I learned something, which was that they had a history that was similar to the story of Things Fall Apart — the history of colonization. This I didn’t know before. Their colonizer was Japan. So these people across the waters were able to relate to the story of dispossession in Africa. People from different parts of the world can respond to the same story, if it says something to them about their own history and their own experience.
It seems that people from places that haven’t experienced colonization in the same way have also responded to the story.
There are different forms of dispossession, many, many ways in which people are deprived or subjected to all kinds of victimization — it doesn’t have to be colonization. Once you allow yourself to identify with the people in a story, then you might begin to see yourself in that story even if on the surface it’s far removed from your situation. This is what I try to tell my students: this is one great thing that literature can do — it can make us identify with situations and people far away. If it does that, it’s a miracle. I tell my students, it’s not difficult to identify with somebody like yourself, somebody next door who looks like you. What’s more difficult is to identify with someone you don’t see, who’s very far away, who’s a different color, who eats a different kind of food. When you begin to do that then literature is really performing its wonders.
A character in Things Fall Apart remarks that the white man “has put a knife on the things that held us together, and we have fallen apart.” Are those things still severed, or have the wounds begun to heal?
What I was referring to there, or what the speaker in the novel was thinking about, was the upsetting of a society, the disturbing of a social order. The society of Umuofia, the village in Things Fall Apart, was totally disrupted by the coming of the European government, missionary Christianity, and so on. That was not a temporary disturbance; it was a once and for all alteration of their society. To give you the example of Nigeria, where the novel is set, the Igbo people had organized themselves in small units, in small towns and villages, each self-governed. With the coming of the British, Igbo land as a whole was incorporated into a totally different polity, to be called Nigeria, with a whole lot of other people with whom the Igbo people had not had direct contact before. The result of that was not something from which you could recover, really. You had to learn a totally new reality, and accommodate yourself to the demands of this new reality, which is the state called Nigeria. Various nationalities, each of which had its own independent life, were forced by the British to live with people of different customs and habits and priorities and religions. And then at independence, fifty years later, they were suddenly on their own again. They began all over again to learn the rules of independence. The problems that Nigeria is having today could be seen as resulting from this effort that was initiated by colonial rule to create a new nation. There’s nothing to indicate whether it will fail or succeed. It all depends.
One might hear someone say, How long will it take these people to get their act together? It’s going to take a very, very long time, because it’s really been a whole series of interruptions and disturbances, one step forward and two or three back. It has not been easy. One always wishes it had been easier. We’ve compounded things by our own mistakes, but it doesn’t really help to pretend that we’ve had an easy task.
In Home and Exile, you talk about the negative ways in which British authors such as Joseph Conrad and Joyce Cary portrayed Africans over the centuries. What purpose did that portrayal serve?
It was really a straightforward case of setting us up, as it were. The last four or five hundred years of European contact with Africa produced a body of literature that presented Africa in a very bad light and Africans in very lurid terms. The reason for this had to do with the need to justify the slave trade and slavery. The cruelties of this trade gradually began to trouble many people in Europe. Some people began to question it. But it was a profitable business, and so those who were engaged in it began to defend it — a lobby of people supporting it, justifying it, and excusing it. It was difficult to excuse and justify, and so the steps that were taken to justify it were rather extreme. You had people saying, for instance, that these people weren’t really human, they’re not like us. Or, that the slave trade was in fact a good thing for them, because the alternative to it was more brutal by far.
And therefore, describing this fate that the Africans would have had back home became the motive for the literature that was created about Africa. Even after the slave trade was abolished, in the nineteenth century, something like this literature continued, to serve the new imperialistic needs of Europe in relation to Africa. This continued until the Africans themselves, in the middle of the twentieth century, took into their own hands the telling of their story.
You write in Home and Exile, “After a short period of dormancy and a little self-doubt about its erstwhile imperial mission, the West may be ready to resume its old domineering monologue in the world.” Are some Western writers backpedaling and trying to tell their own version of African stories again?
This tradition that I’m talking about has been in force for hundreds of years, and many generations have been brought up on it. What was preached in the churches by the missionaries and their agents at home all supported a certain view of Africa. When a tradition gathers enough strength to go on for centuries, you don’t just turn it off one day. When the African response began, I think there was an immediate pause on the European side, as if they were saying, Okay, we’ll stop telling this story, because we see there’s another story. But after a while there’s a certain beginning again, not quite a return but something like a reaction to the African story that cannot, of course, ever go as far as the original tradition that the Africans are responding to. There’s a reaction to a reaction, and there will be a further reaction to that. And I think that’s the way it will go, until what I call a balance of stories is secured. And this is really what I personally wish this century to see — a balance of stories where every people will be able to contribute to a definition of themselves, where we are not victims of other people’s accounts. This is not to say that nobody should write about anybody else — I think they should, but those that have been written about should also participate in the making of these stories.
And that’s what started with Things Fall Apart and other books written by Africans around the 1950s.
Yes, that’s what it turned out to be. It was not actually clear to us at the time what we were doing. We were simply writing our story. But the bigger story of how these various accounts tie in, one with the other, is only now becoming clear. We realize and recognize that it’s not just colonized people whose stories have been suppressed, but a whole range of people across the globe who have not spoken. It’s not because they don’t have something to say, it simply has to do with the division of power, because storytelling has to do with power. Those who win tell the story; those who are defeated are not heard. But that has to change. It’s in the interest of everybody, including the winners, to know that there’s another story. If you only hear one side of the story, you have no understanding at all.
You’re talking about a shift in power, so there would be more of a balance of power between cultures than there is now?
Well, not a shift in the structure of power. I’m not thinking simply of political power. The shift in power will create stories, but also stories will create a shift in power. So one feeds the other. And the world will be a richer place for that.
Do you see this balance of stories as likely to emerge in this era of globalization and the exporting of American culture?
That’s a real problem. The mindless absorption of American ideas, culture, and behavior around the world is not going to help this balance of stories, and it’s not going to help the world, either. People are limiting themselves to one view of the world that comes from somewhere else. That’s something that we have to battle with as we go along, both as writers and as citizens, because it’s not just in the literary or artistic arena that this is going to show itself. I think one can say this limiting isn’t going to be very healthy for the societies that abandon themselves.
In Anthills of the Savannah the poet Ikem says, “The prime failure of our government is the … failure of our rulers to reestablish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being.” Does this hold true for Nigeria today?
Yes, this is very much the Nigerian situation. The British handed over the reins of government to a small group of educated people who then became the new rulers. What Ikem is talking about is the distance between this new class of rulers and the other Nigerian people. What needs to be done is to link the two together again, so that those who control power will see the direct relationship to the people in whose name this power is wielded. This connection does not happen automatically, and has not happened in many instances. In the case of Nigeria, the government of the military dictator General Abacha is a good example. The story coming out of his rule is of an enormous transfer of the country’s wealth into private bank accounts, a wholesale theft of the national resources needed for all kinds of things — for health, for education, for roads. That’s not the action of someone who sees himself as the servant of the Nigerian people. The nation’s infrastructure was left to disintegrate, because of one man’s selfish need to have billions. Or take what is happening today, now that we have gotten rid of this military dictator and are beginning to practice again the system of democratic rule. You have leaders who see nothing wrong in inciting religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. It’s all simply to retain power. So you find now a different kind of alienation. The leadership does not really care for the welfare of the country and its people.
What’s your opinion about the new President, Olusegan Obasanjo? Are you less optimistic about him now than you were when he was elected, in May of 1999?
When I talk about those who incite religious conflict, I’m not talking about him, though there are things maybe you could leave at his door. But I think he has a very difficult job to do. What has happened to the country in the past twenty years or so is really grave, and I’m reluctant to pass judgment on a leader only one year after he’s assumed this almost impossible task. So the jury is still out, as far as I’m concerned. I think some of the steps he’s taken are good; there are some steps he still needs to take, perhaps with greater speed, but then it’s easier to say this from a distance than when you’re actually doing it. Leading a very dynamic country like Nigeria, which has a hundred million people, is not a picnic.
In an Atlantic Unbound interview this past winter Nadine Gordimer said, “English is used by my fellow writers, blacks, who have been the most extreme victims of colonialism. They use it even though they have African languages to choose from. I think that once you’ve mastered a language it’s your own. It can be used against you, but you can free yourself and use it as black writers do — you can claim it and use it.” Do you agree with her?
Yes, I definitely do. English is something you spend your lifetime acquiring, so it would be foolish not to use it. Also, in the logic of colonization and decolonization it is actually a very powerful weapon in the fight to regain what was yours. English was the language of colonization itself. It is not simply something you use because you have it anyway; it is something which you can actively claim to use as an effective weapon, as a counterargument to colonization.
You write that the Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo is on the “right side, on behalf of the poor and afflicted, the kind of ‘nothing people’ V. S. Naipaul would love to hammer into the ground with his well-crafted mallet of deadly prose.” Do you think a writer from a country like Nigeria has a moral obligation to write about his homeland in a certain way?
No, there’s no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally yourself with power against the powerless. I think an artist, in my definition of that word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects. That’s different from prescribing a way in which a writer should write. But I do think decency and civilization would insist that you take sides with the powerless.
There are those who say that media coverage of Africa is one-sided — that it focuses on the famines, social unrest, and political violence, and leaves out coverage of the organizations and countries that are working. Do you agree? If so, what effect does this skewed coverage have? Is it a continuation of the anti-Africa British literature you talk about in Home and Exile?
Yes, I do agree. I think the result has been to create a fatigue, whether it’s charity fatigue or fatigue toward being good to people who are less fortunate. I think that’s a pity. The reason for this concentration on the failings of Africans is the same as what we’ve been talking about — this tradition of bad news, or portraying Africa as a place that is different from the rest of the world, a place where humanity is really not recognizable. When people hear the word Africa, they have come to expect certain images to follow. If you see a good house in Lagos, Nigeria, it doesn’t quite fit the picture you have in your head, because you are looking for the slum — that is what the world expects journalists covering a city in Africa to come back with.
Now, if you are covering America, you are not focusing on slums every day of your life. You see a slum once in a while, maybe you talk about it, but the rest of the time you are talking about other things. It is that ability to see the complexity of a place that the world doesn’t seem to be able to take to Africa, because of this baggage of centuries of reporting about Africa. The result is the world doesn’t really know Africa. If you are an African or you live in Africa, this stands out very clearly to you, you are constantly being bombarded with bad news, and you know that there is good news in many places. This doesn’t mean that the bad news doesn’t exist, that’s not what I’m saying. But it exists alongside other things. Africa is not simple — people want to simplify it. Africa is very complex. Very bad things go on — they should be covered — but there are also some good things.
This is something that comes with this imbalance of power that we’ve been talking about. The people who consume the news that comes back from the rest of the world are probably not really interested in hearing about something that is working. Those who have the ability to send crews out to bring back the news are in a position to determine what the image of the various places should be, because they have the resources to do it. Now, an African country doesn’t have a television crew coming to America, for instance, and picking up the disastrous news. So America sends out wonderful images of its success, power, energy, and politics, and the world is bombarded in a very partial way by good news about the powerful and bad news about the less powerful.
You mentioned that literature was used to justify slavery and imperialism. What is this negative coverage of Africa being used to justify now?
It’s going to be used to justify inaction, which is what this fatigue is all about. Why bother about Africa? Nothing works there, or nothing ever will work. There is a small minority of people who think that way, and they may be pushing this attitude. But even if nobody was pushing it, it would simply happen by itself. This is a case of sheer inertia, something that has been happening for a long time just goes on happening, unless something stops it. It becomes a habit of mind.
You said in a New York Times interview in 1988, “I would be very, very sad to have to live in Europe or America. The relationship between me and the society I write about is so close and so necessary.” What was it like for you to write this book outside of your own country?
Maybe I make it sound as if it’s impossible for me to write outside of Nigeria. That’s really not true. I think what I mean is that it is nourishing for me to be working from Nigeria, there’s a kind of nourishment you get there that you cannot get elsewhere. But it doesn’t mean you cannot work. You can work, you can always use what’s available to you, whether it’s memory, hearsay, news items, or imagination. I intend to write a novel in America. When I have done it, perhaps we can discuss the effect of writing a novel from abroad. It’s not impossible.
Now a related question, which is not exactly the one you’ve asked, is, Why don’t you write a novel about America? The reason for that is not simply that I don’t want to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, it’s just the practical issue of this balance we’ve been talking about. There’s no lack of writers writing novels in America, about America. Therefore, it seems to me it would be wasteful for me to add to that huge number of people writing here when there are so few people writing about somewhere else. So that’s really my reason, it’s nothing mystical. I have no intention of trying to write about America because it would be using up rare energy that should be used to produce something that has no chance of being produced otherwise.
Has living here changed the way you think about Nigeria?
It must have, but this is not something you can weigh and measure. I’ve been struck, for instance, by the impressive way that political transition is managed in America. Nobody living here can miss that if you come from a place like Nigeria which is unable so far to manage political transitions in peace. I wish Nigeria would learn to do this. There are other things, of course, where you wish Americans would learn from Nigerians: the value of people as people, the almost complete absence of race as a factor in thought, in government. That’s something that I really wish for America, because no day passes here without some racial factor coming up somewhere, which is a major burden on this country.
Could you talk about your visit to Nigeria this past summer? What was it like for you to go back there?
It was a very powerful and emotional experience. Emotional mostly because I had not been there in many years, but the circumstances of my leaving Nigeria were very sad, and many people who were responding to my return had that in their mind, and so it was more than simply someone who had not been home in quite a few years. And then you add to that all the travails that Nigeria had gone through in the rule of General Abacha, the severe hardship and punishment that the country had suffered in those years. And the new experiment in democratic rule was also just a few months old when I went home, so it was a very powerful experience.
Do you hope to be able to go back there to live at some point?
Yes, I do indeed. Things would have to be better than they are now for me to be able to do that. Things like hospitals that used to be quite good before have been devastated. The roads you have to take to get to a hospital if the need arises, not to talk about the security of life — both of those would have to improve. But we are constantly watching the situation. It’s not just me, but my family. My wife and children — many of them would be happier functioning at home, because you tend to have your work cut out for you at home. Here there are so many things to do, but they are not necessarily the things you’d rather be doing. Whereas at home it’s different — it’s clear what needs to be done, what’s calling for your special skills or special attachment.
What hopes do you have for Nigeria’s future?
I keep hoping, and that hope really is simply a sense of what Nigeria could be or could do, given the immense resources it has — natural resources, but even more so human resources. There’s a great diversity of vibrant peoples who are not always on the best of terms, but when they are, they can really make things happen. And one hopes that we will someday be able to realize that potential.
Could you talk about your dream, expressed in Home and Exile, of a ‘universal civilization’ — a civilization that some believe we’ve achieved and others think we haven’t?
What the universal civilization I dream about would be, I really don’t know, but I know what it is not. It is not what is being presented today, which is clearly just European and American. A universal civilization is something that we will create. If we accept the thesis that it is desirable to do, then we will go and work on it and talk about it. We have not really talked about it. All those who are saying it’s there are really suggesting that it’s there by default — they are saying to us, let’s stop at this point and call what we have a universal civilization. I don’t think we want to swindle ourselves in that way; I think if we want a universal civilization, we should work to bring it about. And when it appears, I think we will know, because it will be different from anything we have now.
There may be cultures that may sadly have to go, because no one is rooting for them, but we should make the effort to prevent this. We have to hold this conversation, which is a conversation of stories, a conversation of languages, and see what happens.” Chinua Achebe, Interview; Atlantic Magazine, 2000
Numero Tres—“‘… Kronstadt was the prototype of later events which would lead disillusioned radicals to break with the [Bolshevik] movement and to search for the original purity of their ideals. The liquidation of the kulaks, the Great Purge, the Nazi-Soviet pact, Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin—each produced an exodus of Party members and supporters who were convinced that the revolution had been betrayed. ‘What counts decisively,’ wrote Louis Fischer in 1949, ‘is the Kronstadt. Until its advent, one may waver emotionally or doubt intellectually or even reject the cause altogether in one’s mind and yet refuse to attack it. I had no such ‘Kronstadt’ for many years. (Avrich, p. 3)’
In March 1921, the Russian Revolution died. The failure of the March Action in Germany crushed hopes for a ‘permanent revolution’ throughout Europe. The New Economic Policy (NEP), a partial restoration of capitalism and the market, was introduced that month. Treaties and trade agreements were signed with no fewer than five nations—three of which (Britain, Persia and Turkey) were battling communist insurgents (for Britain, in its Asian colonies) who quickly lost their support from Moscow (Carr, p. 47). More than anything else, however, the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion served to illustrate the betrayal of the October Revolution and the degeneration of the Bolsheviks into tyrants. ‘With the defeat of Kronstadt … the last effective demand for a toilers’ democracy passed into history. Thereafter totalitarianism, if not inevitable, was the likely eventuality’ (Avrich, p. 229).
The sailors of Kronstadt had once been described by Leon Trotsky as the ‘pride and glory of the Russian Revolution.’ It was a great spiritual blow when the Red Army stormed the island base after ten days of attacks across the frozen water of the Baltic. Although the Kronstadt uprising was ‘a modest affair’ militarily (Avrich, p. 218), it was the greatest propaganda battle the Bolsheviks had ever entered. Somehow the Bolshevik upper circles had to convince the world that they were completely justified in crushing the ‘pride and glory’ of the Revolution they had led. Otherwise, observers would conclude that the leadership itself had become a counter-revolutionary force and was bent on the creation of a totalitarian dictatorship in Russia.
The first shots of the propaganda war were fired as soon as the revolt began. Government publications and announcements declared that Kronstadt had been taken over by White (Tsarist) forces. The French and other foreigners were also blamed for the conflict in other official proclamations. These groundless claims were enough to isolate Kronstadt from potential supporters until the mutiny was suppressed. After that point, however, the two stories broke down and new ones had to be invented to justify the Bolsheviks’ actions. In the years following Kronstadt, the Bolsheviks and their descendants would claim that the mutineers wanted to restore capitalism, or that they wanted to destroy the Communist Party. They would claim that the population at Kronstadt had fundamentally changed and that the new petty-bourgeois sailors were simply throwing a temper tantrum. They would even claim that the collapse of strikes in Petrograd during the revolt demonstrated the solidarity of the workers with the Bolsheviks and against the Kronstadters.
The truth is that the Kronstadt uprising was not a threat to Soviet Russia. The mutineers were not anti-Bolshevik revolutionaries; they were only idealistic reformers hoping to perfect the results of the October Revolution. None of the myths used to justify the suppression of Kronstadt are accurate. The Bolshevik attack on Kronstadt was little more than a drastic overreaction in the face of a perceived challenge to Bolshevik authority. It was inspired in large part by the dreadful Civil War, which had only ended in 1920 and had put Russia and the communists under a great deal of pressure. Many continue to cling to the old Bolshevik propaganda about Kronstadt, however, and reject this simple explanation. The purpose of this work is to present and refute the claims of the Bolsheviks, in the hope that the true nature of Kronstadt may eventually be accepted.
The real leaders of the rebellion are General Kozlovsky and his aides, Captain Burkser, Kostromitionov, Shirmanovsky, and other White Guards, who are deceiving you with promises of democracy and freedom. In actuality, they are fighting for a restoration of tsarism. (qtd. in Avrich, p. 145)
One of the ‘classic’ myths about the Kronstadt rebellion is that it was led by a White General, with the aim of restoring the old aristocracy. This was one of the first stories that the Bolsheviks created to justify smashing Kronstadt, and, accordingly, it is one of the most easily disproven. The claim that “The White General Kozlovsky” led and organized the rebellion was created before there was even any rebellion to speak of, and it was just as quickly shown to be a lie. Consider the first-hand account of Victor Serge, a member of the Bolshevik Party who was present in Petrograd during the revolt:
On the night of [1 March] I was awoken by the ringing of a telephone in a room at the Astoria next to my own. An agitated voice told me: ‘Kronstadt is in the hands of the Whites. We are all under orders.’
The man who announced this frightful news (frightful because it meant the fall of Petrograd at any minute) was Ilya Ionov, Zinoviev’s brother-in-law. “What Whites? Where did they come from? It’s incredible!”
“A general Kozlovsky” …
… But even before I went to the District Committee I met comrades, rushing out with their revolvers, who claimed that it was an atrocious lie: the sailors had mutinied, it was a naval revolt led by the Soviet… The worst of it all was that we were paralyzed by official falsehoods. It had never happened before that our own Party should lie to us like this. “It’s necessary for the benefit of the people,” said some, who were nonetheless horror-stricken at it all. The strike was now almost general. (Serge, p. 124)
Even before Victor Serge was able to report to duty, he already knew the official propaganda to be nothing more than lies. He later reported that Mikhail Kalinin, the President of Russia, invented the story of Kozlovsky upon his (Kalinin’s) return from the Anchor Square Meeting at the naval base on March 1 (where the Petropavlovsk Resolution was adopted) (Serge, p. 127).
While it is true that there was a former tsarist general at the base, it is clear from all records that this General Kozlovsky did not have anything to do with leading or guiding the rebellion. He had been appointed to the base by Leon Trotsky as an “artillery specialist,” a position which he would retain throughout the revolt. Kozlovsky did give advice to the leaders of the rebellion, such as they were. He, and the other specialists, recommended an assault on Oranienbaum, a town on the mainland south of Kronstadt, in order to seize supplies and prepare for a march on Petrograd. He also argued that the base’s artillery be used to break up the ice which surrounded the island and free the ice-bound ships so that they could take part in the battle. He even urged the Provisional Revolutionary Committee to build barricades in case of a Bolshevik attack (Avrich, p. 138). None of Kozlovsky’s recommendations were pursued by the Kronstadters, despite the fact that they would all have helped the Kronstadters in the military struggle.
This is in part due to the traditional hatred of officers and the upper classes among the Kronstadt sailors, another reason why the myth of Kozlovsky’s leadership is unbelievable. “Given the sailors’ independent spirit and traditional hatred of officers, it is unlikely that Kozlovsky and his colleagues could have won real influence among them” (Avrich, p. 101). These days one must look long and hard to find any Leninists who still hold that Kozlovsky led the Kronstadt rebellion; this myth has been abandoned even by those who created it. Although the story of Kozlovsky’s leadership has been completely discredited, it was once the cornerstone of official Bolshevik policy. It was the first lie the bureaucrats used to justify the destruction of the Kronstadt rebellion, so it is fitting that it is the first to be refuted.
[The Bolsheviks] denounced the men of Kronstadt as counter-revolutionary mutineers, led by a White general. This denunciation appears to have been groundless. (Deutscher, p. 511)
On March 2, Lenin and Trotsky declared the mutiny to be a plot of “White Guard” generals, behind whom stood the SR:s and “French Counterintelligence.” Later on, Stalin’s propaganda would go further still, claiming that the Kronstadt rising had been financed by Washington. (Pipes, p. 382)
The claim that the uprising at Kronstadt had been arranged by aristocratic émigrés or hostile foreign nations was another groundless conspiracy theory. It appeared in the early days of the mutiny, at nearly the same time as the story about Kozlovsky. Like the first, it is now discredited, but served for a time to convince a skeptical world of the necessity of destroying the Kronstadt insurrection as soon as possible. While it is true that “the Russians is exile rejoiced at the uprising and sought to assist the insurgents by every possible means … it is not true that the émigrés had engineered the rebellion” (Avrich, p. 126). As a matter of fact, until March 13 the Kronstadters actually refused to accept the food and medicine (to say nothing of military aid) that was offered by foreigners (and even the Red Cross), despite a desperate lack of supplies (Avrich, p. 121). Nothing ever reached the island.
As with the rebels’ reluctance to heed Kozlovsky’s advice, their refusal to accept aid can be linked to their hatred of the privileged classes. This is another instance in which the sailors’ pride may have cost them a chance to hold out against the Bolsheviks’ attack, had they been but willing to have anything to do with “the bourgeoisie.” The fact that they let all of these chances slip away helps to illustrate the true nature of the revolt. The Kronstadters were in no way agents of the Whites, of the capitalists, or of the émigrés. Instead, they were simply workers and soldiers, fed up with the dictatorship that had descended upon Russia, and eager to reform it.
Our enemies are trying to deceive you. They say that the Kronstadt rebellion was organized by Mensheviks, SR:s, Entente spies, and tsarist generals. Nonsense! If our revolution was made in Paris, then the moon was made in Berlin. (qtd. in Avrich, p. 98)
The Kronstadt uprising did not attract the Petrograd workers. It repelled them. The stratification proceeded along class lines. The workers immediately felt that the Kronstadt mutineers stood on the opposite side of the barricades—and they supported Soviet power. (Trotsky, p. 6)
After the Kronstadt revolt had already been crushed, the Bolshevik authorities found themselves haunted by its memory. Rational observers soon dismissed the charges that the uprising was arranged by émigrés or White generals, and the bureaucrats needed new excuses for their actions. These later justifications were, without exception, far more sophisticated than those that had been created on the spot. Leon Trotsky in particular spent a good deal of time arguing the Bolshevik case in attempts to recruit leftists to his anti-Stalin opposition. One of Trotsky’s later claims tries to show that the workers of Petrograd opposed the revolt, which was therefore anti-proletarian. He weaves this tale by claiming that the collapse of the widespread strikes in the city demonstrated support for the Bolsheviks and opposition to the Kronstadters. A deeper look shows that this is not necessarily the case.
Striking throughout the whole of Russia had grown steadily throughout the winter of 1920-1921, eventually reaching a climax in February, 1921. The strikes and popular unrest were mainly inspired by opposition to the policies of “War Communism,” which had been adopted by the Bolsheviks during the Civil War. Many Russians accepted ‘War Communism’ as a necessary evil during the Civil War, and tolerated it in order to defeat the Whites. However, once the Civil War ended in 1920, opposition to the unnecessary continuation of ‘War Communism’ quickly grew. Among its most despised elements were forced requisitioning of supplies from the countryside, and the “roadblock detachments,” which kept starving urbanites from leaving the cities to look for food. The “militarization of labor” into armies of workers controlled with iron discipline and an authoritarian command hierarchy was another disliked aspect of War Communism.
In Petrograd, strikes started in January and grew for the next two months. As Victor Serge noted, when news about the Kronstadt mutiny reached Petrograd in March, “The strike was now almost general” (Serge, p. 124). As a matter of fact, the Kronstadt rebellion actually began as an action in solidarity with the strikes. On February 26, the battleship Petropavlovsk sent a “Fact-Finding Mission” to Petrograd to investigate the strikes and the situation in general. The return and report of this mission on February 28 was the basis of the Petropavlovsk Resolution, which was adopted the next day during a mass-meeting in Anchor Square. It is odd, is it not, that the strikers should be “repelled” by an action taken in solidarity with them!
The fact of the matter is that Trotsky’s claim is false, although it is not such a blatant lie as the earlier myths that had been created about Kozlovsky and the émigrés. Paul Avrich analyzes the collapse of the strikes in some detail, and has compiled a list of reasons (unrelated to solidarity with the Bolsheviks) that prompted this collapse. Among the most important factors are the armed occupation of Petrograd, mass arrests of dissidents, skilled propaganda coupled with concessions, and simple exhaustion on the part of the strikers. “Overnight Petrograd became an armed camp” (Avrich, p. 46), while at the same time dragnets of the city by the Cheka (the State’s secret security force) rounded up hundreds of workers and thousands of students, intellectuals, and other non-workers in just a few days (p. 47). All the strikes were denounced as counter-revolutionary plots and extra rations were given to the Petrograd workers. The despised roadblock detachments were removed, and news of the pending introduction of the NEP was circulated (p. 49). Above all else, however, “the workers were simply too exhausted to keep up any sustained political activity… What’s more, they lacked effective leadership and a coherent program of action” (p. 50). For these reasons, the strikers in Petrograd gave up the struggle only a few days after the Kronstadters joined them.
This does not reveal, however, the true reaction of the Petrograd strikers to the revolt at Kronstadt. Although the collapse of the strikes had nothing to do with the Kronstadt rebellion, is it still possible that the strikers really did oppose the revolt? Historical evidence suggests otherwise. Victor Serge related how news of Kronstadt brought the strike “to a nearly general character” (Serge, p. 130) and how “pamphlets distributed in the working-class districts put out the demands of the Kronstadt Soviet” (p. 126). Moreover, the revolt inspired additional strikes in other cities, notably Kazan and Nizhnyi Novgorod (Figes, p. 762). Although Trotsky’s justification is more sophisticated than earlier ones, it is shown to be just as inaccurate. The claim that the collapse of the Petrograd strikes showed proletarian opposition to Kronstadt is nothing more than another attempt to cover up the tyrannical actions of the Bolsheviks with respect to the Kronstadt revolt.
[Trotsky] accused the masses inside and outside the Party of sympathizing with Kronstadt. He admitted therefore that at that time the Petrograd workers and the opposition, although they had not resisted by force of arms, none the less extended their sympathy to Kronstadt. (Ciliga, p. 4)
The insurgents did not have a conscious program and they could not have had one because of the very nature of the petty bourgeoisie. (Trotsky, p. 6)
Although they were unable to form links between the Kronstadt mutineers and well-known counterrevolutionaries, the Bolsheviks still tried to claim that the revolt deserved to be crushed due to its very nature. In one article, “Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt,” Leon Trotsky claimed that the Kronstadt revolt had no conscious program, but was simply a random uprising expressing the frustrations of the petty-bourgeois peasantry (p. 6). Strangely, Trotsky forgets to mention the Petropavlovsk Resolution in his analysis of Kronstadt. This is odd, because this Resolution is generally seen as an outline of the revolt’s program. In full, the Petropavlovsk Resolution reads:
Having heard the report of the representatives sent by the general meeting of ships’ crews to Petrograd to investigate the situation there, we resolve:
1. Seeing that the present soviets do not express the wishes of the workers and peasants, to organize immediately re-elections to the Soviets with Secret vote, and with care to allow free electoral propaganda for all workers and peasants.
2. To grant liberty of speech and of press to the workers and peasants, to the anarchists and the left socialist parties.
3. To secure freedom of assembly for labor unions and peasant organizations.
4. To call a non-partisan Conference of the workers, Red Army Soldiers and sailors of Petrograd, Kronstadt, and of Petrograd province, no later than March 10th, 1921.
5. To liberate all political prisoners of Socialist parties as well as all workers, peasants, soldiers and Sailors imprisoned in connection with the labor and peasant movements.
6. To elect a Commission to review the cases of those held in prisons and concentration camps.
7. To abolish all ‘politodeli’ [official propaganda] because no party should be given special privileges in the propagation of its ideas or receive financial support from the government for such purposes. Instead there should be established educational and cultural commissions, locally elected and financed by the government.
8. To abolish immediately all ‘Zagryaditelniye otryadi’ [roadblock detachments].
9. To equalize the rations of all who work with the exception of those employed in trades detrimental to health.
10. To abolish the communist fighting detachments in all branches of the army, as well as the communist guards kept on duty in mills and factories. Should such guards or military detachments be found necessary they are to be appointed in the army from the ranks, and in the factories according to the judgment of the workers.
11. To give the peasants full freedom of action in regard to their land and also the right to keep cattle on condition that the peasants manage with their own means; that is, without employing hired labor.
12. To request all branches of the Army, as well as our comrades the military ‘kursanti’ [cadets] to endorse our resolutions.
13. To demand that the press give the fullest publicity to our resolutions.
14. To appoint an itinerant bureau of control.
15. To permit free handicraft production which does not employ hired labor. (Ciliga, p. 2)
The Petropavlovsk Resolution is clearly a program, although Trotsky seems to have forgotten about it. While several of the points deal only with specific grievances, one can find in the others (notably points 1 through 4) seeds of a free socialist society. The progressive program of the Kronstadt rebellion did indeed exist, despite Trotsky’s claim. Again, one finds the Bolsheviks creating their own reality in an effort to justify their inappropriate actions.
These [demands] are primitive formulations, insufficient no doubt, but all of them impregnated with the spirit of October; and no calumny in the world can cast doubt upon the intimate connection existing between this program and the sentiments which guided the expropriations of 1917. (Ciliga, p. 3)
That there were actual counter-revolutionary elements among the sailors was shown by the slogan “Soviets without Bolsheviks.” (Grant, p. 58)
Unable to brush aside the Kronstadt revolt as an White émigré conspiracy and forced to admit that it had a conscious program, modern-day Trotskyists have retreated to the claim that the revolt was counterrevolutionary and therefore had to be crushed. Arch-Trotskyist Ted Grant describes how the revolt was committed to the destruction of the Bolshevik Party, and called for “Soviets without Bolsheviks” (Grant, p. 58). This is in fact not true: ” ‘Soviets without Bolsheviks’ was not … a Kronstadt slogan” (Avrich, p. 181). A close look at the rebellion shows that the Bolsheviks were threatened in no way—the only target was the increasingly totalitarian nature of the single-Party dictatorship.
There were, of course, a large number of Bolshevik Party members at Kronstadt, which had a reputation as a center of revolutionary activity. At the end of the Civil War, the Bolshevik Party had over 4,000 members at Kronstadt a large number for such a small location. However, the end of the Civil War was followed by “a great wave of defections which reduced party membership from 4,000 to 2,000 between September 1920 and March 1921” (Avrich, p. 183). Nearly all of the Bolshevik rank and file at the base backed the uprising when it began in March—only 300 were arrested (and by all accounts treated well) by the Kronstadters during the revolt. While this may seem like a large figure (it was at that point about a fifth of the total membership), it should be kept in mind that the Bolsheviks were under orders to sabotage and undermine the rebellion (Avrich, p. 185). This is all the more impressive when one considers the fact that the relatives of the Kronstadters in Petrograd had been taken hostage by the Bolsheviks, who were also executing other soldiers of questionable loyalty (Avrich, p. 187).
Also worth noting in any discussion about the attitude of the mutineers toward the Bolsheviks are the results of the elections for a new Soviet that occurred a few days into the revolt. Although this Soviet was now open to all parties (not just the Bolsheviks, as had been the case), Bolshevik party members made up a sizable minority—roughly 30%—of the delegates (Avrich, p. 80). This makes it clear that the mutineers did not oppose the Bolsheviks—a good number of them were Bolsheviks themselves! “They were even prepared to accept the Bolsheviks in [the non-Party Soviets] provided they accepted the principals of Soviet democracy and renounced their dictatorship” (Figes, p. 761). Nor was Bolshevik sympathy for the revolt confined to the Kronstadt Party branch. Several Red Army units that attacked the fortress nearly joined the rebellion, despite the placement of special security troops (loyal Bolsheviks with orders to shoot soldiers who wavered) among the ranks and Cheka machine-guns behind their backs. Even high officials including “Gorky, … like many socialists had supported the rebellion from the start” (Figes, p. 767).
Even when two senior Bolsheviks traveled to the base, the rebels showed no signs of aggression or violence. M. I. Kalinin, the President of the People’s Executive, and N. N. Kuzmin, a commissar of the Baltic Fleet, attended the Anchor Square Meeting where the Petropavlovsk Resolution was presented to the base.
When [they] arrived, [they] were met by music, banners, and a military guard of honor, a hopeful sign that serious trouble might soon be averted. Moreover, the Anchor Square meeting opened in a friendly spirit, with the Bolshevik chairman of the Kronstadt Soviet, P. D. Vasiliev, himself presiding. (Avrich, p. 77)
Things started to go downhill, however, when the Bolsheviks addressed the crowd of more than 15,000. The popular Kalinin was heckled by the sailors after he denounced them as traitors and threatened them with “merciless reprisals;” Kuzmin, speaking after him, warned that the base’s “treason would be smashed by the iron hand of the proletariat” and was literally booed off the stage (although both were allowed to leave the fortress peacefully) (Serge, p. 127). Victor Serge claimed that Kalinin and Kuzmin’s “brutal bungling provoked the rebellion … [demonstrating that] right from the first moment, at a time when it was easy to mitigate the conflict, the Bolshevik leaders had no intention of using anything but forceful methods” (p. 127).
The issue of negotiations and a peaceful resolution to the crisis is a delicate one to the Bolsheviks, since it contrasts most clearly the belligerence of the Bolsheviks and the peaceful nature of the revolt. After the Anchor Square debacle, the Bolsheviks made clear their intention to avoid negotiations by arresting over 200 delegates from Kronstadt who had been sent to Petrograd and neighboring areas to explain the position of the mutineers. The next step was the issue of an ultimatum on 5 March by Trotsky, who, in words that “could have been issued by a nineteenth-century provincial governor to the rebellious peasants … warned that the rebels would ‘be shot like partridges’ if they did not give themselves up in twenty-four hours” (Figes, p. 762). Visiting American anarchists offered to serve as mediators in the crisis. They were rebuffed by the Bolshevik leadership and sent on a tour of Russia by train; Russians who offered to mediate were thrown into jail (Serge, p. 128). A parley after the first day of the attack was nothing more than a trap: when members of Kronstadt’s Provisional Revolutionary Committee came out to negotiate, they were taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks (Avrich, p. 155). No real attempt was made by the Bolsheviks to resolve the crisis peacefully, although “the chances were good that the insurgents would have responded to [such an] approach” (Avrich, p. 136).
The non-aggressive nature of the revolt can be seen clearly both in the publications of the Kronstadters and in their actions. The entire Petropavlovsk Resolution was written in a non-threatening tone—note Point 12, which asks for endorsement of the Resolution by other military units. Simply put, the mutineers had no interest in destroying the Soviet State; they simply wanted some of its aspects reformed such as the single party dictatorship and the excesses of ‘War Communism’. Their actions matched their words—recall that none of the common-sense recommendations of General Kozlovsky were pursued at all. While many historians argue that had Kozlovsky’s advice been followed the rebellion might have triumphed, the Kronstadters had no interest in invading the mainland, freeing the battleships from the ice, or even erecting barricades in the town (Avrich, p. 219). The revolt was not founded to attack the Bolsheviks. Rather the rebels naively expected the rest of Russia to rally to their cause and peacefully create a truly free Soviet state: “Comrades, the Kronstadters have raised the banner, and they are confident that tens of millions of workers and peasants will respond to their call” (qtd. in Avrich, p. 199).
The Kronstadt insurrection had shed not a single drop of blood, and merely arrested a few Communist officials, who were treated absolutely correctly; the great majority of Communists … had rallied to the uprising. (Serge, p. 127)
Far from representing the interests of the working class, the Kronstadters were reflecting the pressures of the peasantry, who were becoming increasingly disaffected… After [the introduction of the NEP], there were no more Kronstadts… The peasants had gotten what they wanted. (Grant, p. 59)
Nowadays, the Bolsheviks also attack the Kronstadt revolt for being in the interests of capitalism and the counter-revolution. They claim that the program of the revolt was inspired by the petty-bourgeois peasants and sought the recreation of the free market. The fact of the matter is that the Kronstadt’s economic demands (which can be found in the Petropavlovsk Resolution) are not extreme. The New Economic Policy (NEP) of Lenin and Trotsky actually went considerably further than the Kronstadt demands towards a restoration of capitalism (Avrich, p. 74). The NEP had been drawn up well before the Kronstadt revolt, and was generally seen as a necessary and proper retreat. One did not find many Bolsheviks accusing Lenin of counterrevolutionary conspiracy! Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Kronstadt.
The political demands of the Petropavlovsk Resolution were also the furthest thing from counter-revolutionary as can be imagined. They tend to echo the promises made by the Bolsheviks during 1917—one of the main slogans of the Kronstadt rebellion was actually a take-off of one of the main slogans of the October Revolution: “All Power To The Soviets, But Not To Parties!” The Kronstadt rebellion fought for equality and basic freedoms. It fought for an end to fear and repression, and for democratic government by representative Soviets. These goals can clearly be seen in the list of demands of the Petropavlovsk Resolution, which many modern-day Leninists seem to have misplaced. The actions of the Kronstadters during their 18 days of self-rule were also committed to these goals; the Resolution was not simply literary posturing (Figes, p. 763).
In its ideology, the mutiny was a return to 1917. (Figes, p. 762)
The first lie is to identify the Kronstadt mutineers of 1921 with the heroic Red sailors of 1917. They had nothing in common. The Kronstadt sailors of 1917 were workers and Bolsheviks. (Grant, p. 56)
The last resort of the Trotskyists is to try to claim that the Kronstadters of 1921 were not the Kronstadters of 1917. If this were true, it can be concluded that the Kronstadters really were counter-revolutionaries, not the “pride and glory of the Russian Revolution,” and therefore deserved to be destroyed. Unfortunately for the Bolsheviks, it is not true. “[Kronstadt] was in fact a case of the Bolsheviks being abandoned by their own most favored sons” (Figes, p. 762). Israel Getzler, in his book Kronstadt 1917-1921: The Fate of a Soviet Democracy, has provided hard statistics to support these claims. According to his research, over 94% of the sailors of the battleships Petropavlovsk and the Sevastopol (the leaders of the mutiny) had been sailors in the Baltic Fleet before 1917. He estimates that 75% of the entire Kronstadt garrison were veterans from before the October Revolution (qtd. in Figes, p. 762). It would be superficial to use only these statistics to refute the Bolshevik claim, of course. An in-depth analysis of this critical issue is necessary.
Leon Trotsky claims that all the sailors and soldiers at Kronstadt in 1917 had been sent off to different fronts during the desperate years of the Civil War: “The Baltic Fleet and the Kronstadt garrison were denuded of all revolutionary forces” (p. 3). This occurred “beginning as early as 1918, and in any case not later than 1919” (Trotsky, p. 3). While this would seem to make a good deal of sense, there are a couple of issues that must be kept in mind. First of all, let us not forget that Kronstadt was “the most important base in Russia… whoever controlled Kronstadt controlled Petrograd” (Grant, p. 58). Victor Serge described news of the White occupation of Kronstadt to be “frightful because it meant the fall of Petrograd at any minute” (p. 124). It is unlikely that the Bolsheviks would be shortsighted enough to leave Petrograd open to assault by denuding Kronstadt of all its revolutionary elements. Additionally, one can analyze the British assault on Kronstadt near the end of 1919 (after the time given for the original population to have departed). By all accounts, the Kronstadters performed admirably in this battle, which helped to keep Petrograd from falling into the hands of General Yudenich (Stewart, p. 235). This all demonstrates that Trotsky is at least exaggerating Kronstadt’s loss of personnel during the Civil War, and is possibly involved in outright falsification.
Ted Grant claims that “the Kronstadt garrison of 1921 was composed mainly of raw peasant levies from the Black Sea region. A cursory glance at the surnames of the mutineers immediately shows that they were almost all Ukrainians” (p. 56). Very well—Mr. Grant’s bluff is called. Paul Avrich analyzed hundreds of surnames of those involved with the rebellion, including the Provision Revolutionary Committee; these are his results:
So far as one can judge from these surnames alone—admittedly an uncertain procedure—Great Russians are in the overwhelming majority. There is no unusual proportion of Ukrainian, Germanic, Baltic, or other names. Yet the picture is somewhat different when one looks at the membership of the Provision Revolutionary Committee, the general staff of the insurrection.
|1. Arkhipov||5. Oreshin||9. Perepelkin||13. Valk|
|2. Baikov||6. Ososov||10. Petrichenko||14. Vershinin|
|3. Kilgast||7. Patrushev||11. Romanenko||15. Yakovenko|
|4. Kupolov||8. Pavlov||12. Tukin|
Of the 15 committee members, three (Petrichenko, Yakovenko, and Romanenko) bore patently Ukrainian names and two others (Valk and Kilgast) Germanic names. (p. 92)
The vast majority of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee is ethnic Russian, and the proportion is even larger among the rank and file of the rebels! Mr. Grant’s statement is that the Kronstadters of 1917 had all been replaced with raw Ukrainian peasant levies is obviously incorrect—there was not really any population change at all.
Nor did there need to be a drastic change in population for the Kronstadters to revolt against the Bolsheviks. After all, “the seamen [of Kronstadt] were a traditionally unruly group” (Meijer, p. 848). While in 1917 the extreme radicalism of the Kronstadt sailors served the Bolsheviks, it worked against them in 1921—with no fundamental change necessary. Indeed, throughout the Civil War, there were signs that the Kronstadters only tolerated the Bolshevik dictatorship because it was seen as the lesser of two evils:
Although [the sailors] fought for the Reds during the defense of Petrograd, in October 1919, they only did so to defeat the Whites, whom they saw as an even greater evil than the Bolsheviks. Once the Civil War was over, the sailors turned their anger on the Reds. (Figes, p. 761)
In fact, friction had been growing between the Bolshevik dictatorship and the Kronstadters for years. The first signs came immediately after the October Revolution, when Lenin created a cabinet composed completely of Bolsheviks—against the wishes of the Kronstadt Soviet (Avrich, p. 62). The actions taken by the Bolsheviks during the Civil War—although they were tolerated by the Kronstadters—only increased this tension. Kronstadt had a history of revolutionary maximalism dating back before the October Revolution, and had always been discontent under Bolshevik rule (Avrich, p. 65). No change in population was needed to make this base oppose those it suspected of betraying the revolution.
The Kronstadt rebels of 1921 were essentially the same as those of 1917. The majority of their leaders were veterans of the Kronstadt Fleet… In its personnel, as in its ideology, the mutiny was a return to the revolutionary days of 1917. (Figes, p. 762)
Kronstadt fell in the early morning hours of March 18, 1921. No mercy was shown to the mutineers, while the Bolsheviks celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune.
Later that night, some 500 rebels were shot without trial on Zinoviev’s orders: the regular executioner refused to do it, so a brigade of teenage Komsomols was ordered to shoot the sailors instead… During the following months 2,000 more rebels were executed, nearly all of them without trial, while hundreds of others were sent on Lenin’s orders to Solovki, the first big Soviet concentration camp on an island in the White Sea, where they died a slower death… About 8,000 rebels escaped across the ice to Finland, where they were interned and put to public works. Some of them were later lured back to Russia by the promise of an amnesty—only to be shot or sent to concentration camps on their return. (Figes, p. 767)
The Kronstadt Soviet was disbanded, never to reform. Absolute power was given to Pavel Dybenko, who was appointed commander of the fortress by the government. Throughout the rest of the world, horrified radicals were shattered by the fall of Kronstadt. To their eyes, “there could not be a more conclusive proof that the Bolsheviks had turned into tyrants” (Figes, p. 768).
The political fallout of Kronstadt would come back to haunt the victors of the day. A secret ban on factions within the Bolshevik Party, which was prompted by the Kronstadt revolt, would be used to expel Trotsky from the Party in 1927. In the 1930s, Trotsky’s struggle to create his own opposition to Stalin’s Soviet Union was hindered by ‘the ghost of Kronstadt, [which] was raised against him by libertarian socialists who recalled his role in the crushing of the rebellion’ (Avrich, p. 229). To combat this ghost, Trotsky invented a number of stories which he tried to use to justify attacking Kronstadt. Among them are the claims that the revolt had no program, that there had been a fundamental change in the population at the base, that the rebellion was anti-Bolshevik, and that the rebellion sought the restoration of capitalism, all of which have been refuted. ‘Moreover, as Dwight MacDonald pointed out, Trotsky never answered the charge that the Bolsheviks handled the revolt with unnecessary intransigence and brutality’ (Avrich, p. 230). In the end, Trotsky proved unsuccessful in his bid to create a powerful ‘Fourth International,’ and Trotskyist parties remain small, sectarian and disunited to this day.
From the beginning, the Bolsheviks sought only to crush Kronstadt. There was no legitimate reason for the bureaucracy to turn on the base—the myths of the White General and émigré plots were invented to justify the suppression. It is true that a sense of paranoia probably motivated Bolshevik actions, but this does not excuse them, especially because new lies were created years after the end of Kronstadt. Even long after it was clear that the Bolsheviks had been mistaken in their attack on Kronstadt, they created new stories to justify their actions, instead of offering the necessary factual analyses.
Kronstadt was not opposed to Bolshevism; Kronstadt was not a threat to the Soviet State. It is quite likely that the ‘Kronstadt Plan for a Free Russian Government’ was the only possible alternative to the horrors of Stalinism. The end of Kronstadt was the end of the Russian Revolution, and the justifications offered by unrepentant Bolsheviks have served only to retard progress and hinder the development of a truly free world.’ David Schaich, “Kronstadt, 1921: An Analysis of Bolshevik Propaganda;” 2001
Numero Cuatro—“How, then, do things stand with freedom? Here is how Lenin stated his position in a polemic against the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionaries’ critique of Bolshevik power in 1922:
‘Indeed, the sermons which … the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: ‘The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying at[ the time, permit us to say it again.’ But we say in reply: ‘Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements.’
This Leninist freedom of choice — not ‘Life or money!’ but ‘Life or critique!’ — combined with Lenin’s dismissive attitude towards the ‘liberal’ notion of freedom, accounts for his bad reputation among liberals. Their case largely rests upon their rejection of the standard Marxist-Leninist opposition of ‘formal’ and ‘actual’ freedom: as even Leftist liberals like Claude Lefort emphasize again and again, freedom is in its very notion ‘formal,’ so that ‘actual freedom’ equals the lack of freedom. That is to say, with regard to freedom, Lenin is best remembered for his famous retort ‘Freedom yes, but for WHOM? To do WHAT?’ — for him, in the case of the Mensheviks quoted above, their ‘freedom’ to criticize the Bolshevik government effectively amounted to ‘freedom’ to undermine the workers’ and peasants’ government on behalf of the counter-revolution … Today, is it not obvious after the terrifying experience of Really Existing Socialism, where the fault of this reasoning resides? First, it reduces a historical constellation to a closed, fully contextualized, situation in which the ‘objective’ consequences of one’s acts are fully determined (‘independently of your intentions, what you are doing now objectively serves . . . ‘); second, the position of enunciation of such statements usurps the right to decide what your acts ‘objectively mean,’ so that their apparent ‘objectivism’ (the focus on ‘objective meaning’) is the form of appearance of its opposite, the thorough subjectivism: I decide what your acts objectively mean, since I define the context of a situation (say, if I conceive of my power as the immediate equivalent/expression of the power of the working class, then everyone who opposes me is ‘objectively’ an enemy of the working class). Against this full contextualization, one should emphasize that freedom is ‘actual’ precisely and only as the capacity to ‘transcend’ the coordinates of a given situation, to ‘posit the presuppositions’ of one’s activity (as Hegel would have put it), i.e. to redefine the very situation within which one is active. Furthermore, as many a critic pointed out, the very term ‘Really Existing Socialism,’ although it was coined in order to assert Socialism’s success, is in itself a proof of Socialism’s utter failure, i.e. of the failure of the attempt to legitimize Socialist regimes — the term ‘Really Existing Socialism’ popped up at the historical moment when the only legitimizing reason for Socialism was a ‘ mere fact that it exists . . . ‘
Is this, however, the whole story? How does freedom effectively function in liberal democracies themselves? Although Clinton’s presidency epitomizes the Third Way of today’s (ex-)Left succumbing to the Rightist ideological blackmail, his health-care reform program would nonetheless amount to a kind of act, at least in today’s conditions, since it would have been based on the rejection of the hegemonic notions of the need to curtail Big State expenditure and administration — in a way, it would ‘do the impossible.’ No wonder, then, that it failed: its failure — perhaps the only significant, although negative, event of Clinton’s presidency bears witness to the material force of the ideological notion of ‘free choice.’ That is to say, although the large majority of the so-called ‘ordinary people’ were not properly acquainted with the reform program, the medical lobby (twice as strong as the infamous defense lobby!) succeeded in imposing on the public the fundamental idea that, with universal health-care free choice (in matters concerning medicine) will be somehow threatened — against this purely fictional reference to ‘free choice,’ all enumeration of ‘hard facts’ (in Canada, health-care is less expensive and more effective, with no less free choice, etc.) proved ineffective.
Here we are at the very nerve center of the liberal ideology: freedom of choice, grounded in the notion of the ‘psychological’ subject endowed with propensities he or she strives to realize. This especially holds today, in the era of what sociologists like Ulrich Beck call ‘risk society,’ when the ruling ideology endeavors to sell us the insecurity caused by the dismantling of the Welfare State as the opportunity for new freedoms: you have to change jobs every year, relying on short-term contracts instead of a long-term stable appointment. Why not see it as the liberation from the constraints of a fixed job, as the chance to reinvent yourself again and again, to become aware of and realize hidden potentials of your personality? You can no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay. Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or ‘second modernity’ ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of the ‘escape from freedom,’ of the immature sticking to old stable forms … Even better, when this is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, then I as it were automatically interpret all these changes as the results of my personality, not as the result of me being thrown around by market forces.
Phenomena like these make it all the more necessary today to REASSERT the opposition of “formal” and “actual” freedom in a new, more precise, sense. What we need today, in the era of liberal hegemony, is a “Leninist” traité de la servitude libérale, a new version of la Boétie’s Traiti de la servitude volontaire that would fully justify the apparent oxymoron “liberal totalitarianism.” In experimental psychology, Jean-Léon Beauvois took the first step in this direction with his precise exploration of the paradoxes of conferring on the subject the freedom to choose. Repeated experiments established the following paradox: if, AFTER getting from two groups of volunteers the agreement to participate in an experiment, one informs them that the experiment will involve something unpleasant, against their ethics even, and if, at this point, one reminds the first group that they have the free choice to say no, and says nothing to the other group, in BOTH groups, the SAME (very high) percentage will agree to continue their participation in the experiment.
What this means is that conferring the formal freedom of choice does not make any difference: those given the freedom will do the same thing as those (implicitly) denied it. This, however, does not mean that the reminder/bestowal of the freedom of choice does not make any difference: those given the freedom to choose will not only tend to choose the same as those denied it; they will tend to “rationalize” their “free” decision to continue to participate in the experiment — unable to endure the so-called cognitive dissonance (their awareness that they FREELY acted against their interests, propensities, tastes or norms), they will tend to change their opinion about the act they were asked to accomplish.
Let us say that an individual is first asked to participate in an experiment that concerns changing eating habits in order to fight against famine; then, after agreeing to do it, at the first encounter in the laboratory, he will be asked to swallow a living worm, with the explicit reminder that, if he finds this act repulsive, he can, of course, say no, since he has the complete freedom to choose. In most cases, he will do it, and then rationalize it by way of saying to himself something like: “What I am asked to do IS disgusting, but I am not a coward, 1 should display some courage and self-control, otherwise scientists will perceive me as a weak person who pulls out at the first minor obstacle! Furthermore, a worm does have a lot of proteins and it could effectively be used to feed the poor who am 1 to hinder such an important experiment because of my petty sensitivity? And, finally, maybe my disgust of worms is just a prejudice, maybe a worm is not so bad — and would tasting it not be a new and daring experience? What if it will enable me to discover an unexpected, slightly perverse, dimension of myself that 1 was hitherto unaware of?”
Beauvois enumerates three modes of what brings people to accomplish such an act which runs against their perceived propensities and/or interests: authoritarian (the pure command “You should do it because I say so, without questioning it!”, sustained by the reward if the subject does it and the punishment if he does not do it), totalitarian (the reference to some higher Cause or common Good which is larger than the subject’s perceived interest: “You should do it because, even if it is unpleasant, it serves our Nation, Party, Humanity!”), and liberal (the reference to the subject’s inner nature itself. “What is asked of you may appear repulsive, but look deep into yourself and you will discover that it’s in your true nature to do it, you will find it attractive, you will become aware of new, unexpected, dimensions of your personality!”).
At this point, Beauvois should be corrected: a direct authoritarianism is practically nonexistent — even the most oppressive regime publicly legitimizes its reign with the reference to some Higher Good, and the fact that, ultimately, “you have to obey because I say so” reverberates only as its obscene supplement discernible between the lines. It is rather the specificity of the standard authoritarianism to refer to some higher Good (“whatever your inclinations are, you have to follow my order for the sake of the higher Good!”), while totalitarianism, like liberalism, interpellates the subject on behalf of HIS OWN good (“what may appear to you as an external pressure, is really the expression of your objective interests, of what you REALLY WANT without being aware of it! “). The difference between the two resides elsewhere: totalitarianism” imposes on the subject his or her own good, even if it is against his or her will — recall King Charles’ (in)famous statement: “If any shall be so foolishly unnatural s to oppose their king, their country and their own good, we will make them happy, by God’s blessing — even against their wills. “ (Charles I to the Earl of Essex, 6 August 1 644. ) Here we encounter the later Jacobin theme of happiness as a political factor, as well as the Saint-Justian idea of forcing people to be happy … Liberalism tries to avoid (or, rather, cover up) this paradox by way of clinging to the end to the fiction of the subject’s immediate free self-perception (“I don’t claim to know better than you what you want — just look deep into yourself and decide freely what you want!”).
The reason for this fault in Beauvois’s line of argumentation is that he fails to recognize how the abyssal tautological authority (“It is so because 1 say so!” of the Master) does not work only because of the sanctions (punishment/reward) it implicitly or explicitly evokes. That is to say, what, effectively, makes a subject freely choose what is imposed on him against his interests and/or propensities? Here, the empirical inquiry into “pathological” (in the Kantian sense of the term) motivations is not sufficient: the enunciation of an injunction that imposes on its addressee a symbolic engagement/ commitment evinces an inherent force of its own, so that what seduces us into obeying it is the very feature that may appear to be an obstacle — the absence of a “why.” Here, Lacan can be of some help: the Lacanian “Master-Signifier” designates precisely this hypnotic force of the symbolic injunction which relies only on its own act of enunciation — it is here that we encounter “symbolic efficiency” at its purest. The three ways of legitimizing the exercise of authority (“authoritarian,” “totalitarian,” “liberal”) are nothing but three ways of covering up, of blinding us to the seductive power of the abyss of this empty call. In a way, liberalism is here even the worst of the three, since it NATURALIZES the reasons for obedience into the subject’s internal psychological structure. So the paradox is that “liberal” subjects are in a way those least free: they change the very opinion/perception of themselves, accepting what was IMPOSED on them as originating in their “nature” — they are even no longer AWARE of their subordination.
Let us take the situation in the Eastern European countries around 1990, when Really Existing Socialism was falling apart: all of a sudden, people were thrown into a situation of the “freedom of political choice” — however, were they REALLY at any point asked the fundamental question of what kind of new order they actually wanted? Is it not that they found themselves in the exact situation of the subject-victim of a Beauvois experiment? They were first told that they were entering the promised land of political freedom; then, soon afterwards, they were informed that this freedom involved wild privatization, the dismantling of the system of social security, etc. etc. — they still have the freedom to choose, so if they want, they can step out; but, no, our heroic Eastern Europeans didn’t want to disappoint their Western mentors, they stoically persisted in the choice they never made, convincing themselves that they should behave as mature subjects who are aware that freedom has its price … This is why the notion of the psychological subject endowed with natural propensities, who has to realize its true Self and its potentials, and who is, consequently, ultimately responsible for his failure or success, is the key ingredient of liberal freedom. And here one should risk reintroducing the Leninist opposition of “formal” and “actual” freedom: in an act of actual freedom, one dares precisely to BREAK the seductive power of symbolic efficiency. Therein resides the moment of truth of Lenin’s acerbic retort to his Menshevik critics: the truly free choice is a choice in which I do not merely choose between two or more options WITHIN a pre-given set of coordinates, but I choose to change this set of coordinates itself The catch of the “transition” from Really Existing Socialism to capitalism was that people never had the chance to choose the ad quem of this transition — all of a sudden, they were (almost literally) “thrown” into a new situation in which they were presented with a new set of given choices (pure liberalism, nationalist conservatism … ). What this means is that the “actual freedom” as the act of consciously changing this set occurs only when, in the situation of a forced choice, one ACTS AS IF THE CHOICE IS NOT FORCED and “chooses the impossible.”
This is what Lenin’s obsessive tirades against “formal” freedom are about, therein resides their “rational kernel” which is worth saving today: when he emphasizes that there is no “pure” democracy, that we should always ask who does a freedom under consideration serve, which is its role in the class struggle, his point is precisely to maintain the possibility of the TRUE radical choice. This is what the distinction between “formal” and “actual” freedom ultimately amounts to: “formal” freedom is the freedom of choice WITHIN the coordinates of the existing power relations, while “actual” freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates. In short, Lenin’s point is not to limit freedom of choice, but to maintain the fundamental Choice — when Lenin asks about the role of a freedom within the class struggle, what he is asking is precisely: “Does this freedom contribute to or constrain the fundamental revolutionary Choice?”
The most popular TV show of the fall of 2000 in France, with the viewer rating two times higher than that of the notorious ‘Big Brother’ reality soaps, was ‘C’est mon choix‘ (‘It is my choice’) on France 3, the talk show whose guest is an ordinary (or, exceptionally, a well-known) person who made a peculiar choice which determined his or her entire life-style: one of them decided never to wear underwear, another tries to find a more appropriate sexual partner for his father and mother — extravagance is allowed, solicited even, but with the explicit exclusion of the choices which may disturb the public (for example, a person whose choice is to be and act as a racist, is a priori excluded). Can one imagine a better predicament of what the ‘freedom of choice’ effectively amounts to in our liberal societies? We can go on making our small choices, ‘reinvesting ourselves’ thoroughly, on condition that these choices do not seriously disturb the social and ideological balance. For ‘C’est mon choix,’ the truly radical thing would have been to focus precisely on the ‘disturbing’ choices: to invite as guests people like dedicated racists, i.e. people whose choice (whose difference) DOES make a difference. This, also, is the reason why, today, ‘democracy’ is more and more a false issue, a notion so discredited by its predominant use that, perhaps, one should take the risk of abandoning it to the enemy. Where, how, by whom are the key decisions concerning global social issues made? Are they made in the public space, through the engaged participation of the majority? If the answer is yes, it is of secondary importance if the state has a one-party system, etc. If the answer is no, it is of secondary importance if we have parliamentary democracy and freedom of individual choice.
Did something homologous to the invention of the liberal psychological individual not take place in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s? The Russian avant-garde art of the early 1920s (futurism, constructivism) not only zealously endorsed industrialization, it even endeavored to reinvent a new industrial man — no longer the old man of sentimental passions and roots in traditions, but the new man who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial Machine. As such, it was subversive in its very ‘ultra-orthodoxy,’ i.e. in its over-identification with the core of the official ideology: the image of man that we get in Eisenstein, Meyerhold, constructivist paintings, etc., emphasizes the beauty of his/her mechanical movements, his/her thorough depsychologization. What was perceived in the West as the ultimate nightmare of liberal individualism, as the ideological counterpoint to ‘Taylorization,’ to Fordist ribbon-work, was in Russia hailed as the utopian prospect of liberation: recall how Meyerhold violently asserted the ‘behaviorist’ approach to acting — no longer emphatic familiarization with the person the actor is playing, but ruthless bodily training aimed at cold bodily discipline, at the ability of the actor to perform a series of mechanized movements . . .’ THIS is what was unbearable to AND IN the official Stalinist ideology, so that the Stalinist ‘socialist realism’ effectively WAS an attempt to reassert a ‘Socialism with a human face,’ i.e. to reinscribe the process of industrialization within the constraints of the traditional psychological individual: in the Socialist Realist texts, paintings and films, individuals are no longer rendered as parts of the global Machine, but as warm, passionate persons.
The obvious reproach that imposes itself here is, of course: is the basic characteristic of today’s ‘postmodern’ subject not the exact opposite of the free subject who experienced himself as ultimately responsible for his fate, namely the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status of a victim of circumstances beyond his control? Every contact with another human being is experienced as a potential threat — if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me; this logic of victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard cases of sexual or racist harassment — recall the growing financial industry of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry deal in the USA and the financial claims of the Holocaust victims and forced laborers in Nazi Germany, and the idea that the USA should pay the African-Americans hundreds of billions of dollars for all they were deprived of due to their past slavery … This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the inherent supplement of the liberal free subject: in today’s predominant form of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of circumstances.” Slavoj Zizek, “The Leninist Freedom;” from Beyond Belief, 2001