Dear Emily Post-Avant,

I have read the couple of things you’ve written in the past few weeks about the Commune group. I find the pieces both revealing and entertaining. Here in the Bay Area there are quite a few of us commies and anarchists who find the Commune [GAP] group somewhat humorous, too.

Avanti y Salud from us, compagno Emilia, whoever you really are!

And, therefore, regarding the Commune faction, I was reading a recent article in the LARB, an abridged presentation of the introduction to Juliana Spahr’s new, quite derivative book (though that’s another topic), Du Bois’s Telegram, just published by that dangerous fifth column of Jacobinism, Harvard University.

The article had come up in relation to Lenin’s short article from 1905, “Party Organization and Party Literature,” which we were discussing in our weekly book group, in association with a month-long study of Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution and other stuff on Bolshevik cultural politics. Here’s what Spahr says about Lenin’s article in the LARB piece:

The murder of Nikolay Gumilev, an anticommunist poet, in 1921 is often seen as the beginning of a fairly significant repression of artists who refused socialist realism or Bolshevik politics. By the time the First Soviet Writers’ Congress was held in 1934, it was clear that the Soviet Union’s interest was limited to the social realism that Lenin called a “party literature” in his 1905 “Party Organization and Party Literature.”

In context of the Stalinist mass killing fields, the phrase “fairly significant repression” is rather quaint. But beyond that, what do you think of this passage in particular, as we later had a little side debate about it in the reading group. Some (a few folks from the anarchist BASG) more or less liked Spahr’s formulation, as one would expect; others of us (in the orbit of RWG)—though in absolute agreement that the murder of Gumilyov and others framed in the Tagantsev conspiracy was a crime that deeply injured the revolution—argued that Spahr’s formulation constituted a gross misrepresentation, betraying some serious ignorance of basic Soviet history.

Some things you’ve said in the past, Ms. Emily, suggest your politics are in line with the RWG and Trotskyism in general? Am I correct? Would it be OK to send you some of our literature? If you will send me your address, I will do so forthwith. My comrades and I would love to communicate with you further. Our own pages are open to you at any time!

I’ll leave it at that, without specifying what I perceive is Spahr’s error, as I’m curious what you yourself see and think in what she says.

Thank you for Dispatches and for your unyielding contributions.

 

—ILWU Member and Sometime Poet

 

**

Dear ILWU Member and Sometime Poet,

Being a sometime-poet is much better than being a full-time poet! Especially if a good deal of your non-poetry time is taken up with radical trade union work. Be more of a trade union radical than a poet. Do other things. So many other things to do! Get a fine dog and go sheepherding, like one of my employers, Mike Boughn does. Or whatever. Not that any of it will save you.

I always wanted to be a member of the ILWU, actually. Not just saying that. I fancied myself as a Rosie the Riveter/Welder type, rappelling down the sides of huge tankers and freighters. Drinking in the bars off the docks, after work. Strategizing on building an anti-Stalinist tendency in the local. Picking up cute guys and girls with biceps and abs. Alas, that was back in the late 1970s, early 80s, when I was young, slender, good looking, and labor-movement Stalinists actually did exist. Too late now.

Forgive me, but I am out of touch with the alphabet soup of leftist political discriminations. The RWG for instance. Revolutionary Writers Group, or Revolutionary Workers Group? A big difference, I would imagine. I used to be able to rattle off the whole bowl of letters for every Trotskyist, Anarchist, and Maoist faction in the land (and beyond), back when I was in the YSA and SWP (fifteen years, freight car repair, 1980s, back when almost no women were working on the railroad—you want some sexual harassment stories, let me know when you have five or six hours). But anyway, are you guys a split- off from the SWP? Maybe lost descendants of the Breitman-Lovell FIT?

I have to tell you, though, if you have any illusions of recruiting me into your RWG, whatever its lineage, forget it. Bolshevism will not be the ticket. We actually need some kind of American version of Left Menshevism. Your reading group should take up Julius Martov. He’s the true, forgotten saint of the Russian revolution.

Sorry if that disappoints you. I am an old matron, tired, increasingly sagged and sad, no one invites me anywhere. All I want to do, these days, is to get drunk and watch old Eastern European movies. Other than that, I’ll just say one thing: Without a decisive democratic socialist revolution that stomps all over Barack’s or Hillary’s or Michelle’s book-touring, revamped neo-liberalism, the world is going to burn up over the next couple centuries in rapid feedback loops and become like Venus.

Anyway, and whatever the case, yes, the Tagantsev frame-up was a crime. It doesn’t matter if it happened in the horrible, pressurized cauldron of the civil war. And it doesn’t matter that Lenin had given Gorky a letter commuting the execution of Gumilyov, but too late. Spahr is correct: The macabre, intentional terror-roundup of dissident intellectuals, even if such wasn’t repeated again in similar scale under Lenin, can be seen as helping to set the stage for the wildly more massive and random crimes under Stalin. The Tagantsev murders must be condemned, on moral principle, by anyone who is a socialist worthy of the name. Same with Kronstadt.

OK, so I have now read the LARB piece you refer to. The material about the turncoat Richard Wright and associates is quite fascinating, some of which I did not know. The drawing out of those findings are to Spahr’s credit. Good for her.

Where she goes off the rails of history (and the errors are such clunkers they throw, ipso facto, the credibility of her whole book into question, not to mention the history chops of the Harvard UP editors) is in her evident misapprehension of the meaning and application of the phrase “socialist realism.” Astonishingly, Spahr seems to believe that Gumilyov and others were killed or jailed (in 1921!) for not adhering to its tenets. Not only that. She goes on to unambiguously suggest that Lenin himself, via a 1905 article in Proletary, calls for implementation of the “social realism” that became brutally enshrined as state dogma in 1934.

Spahr (and apparently those of her comrades at Commune, who surely read the manuscript and would have corrected her otherwise) is evidently unaware that in 1921 there was no concerted state pressure whatsoever on artists to conform to “socialist realist” models. There couldn’t have been, because there were no such models, and wouldn’t be until the early 30s. Yes, literary polemics were rampant during the civil war years, in which the most prominent figures of the revolution were passionately engaged, from Lenin to Trotsky, from Bukharin to Mayakovsky, from the holdouts of Proletkult, to the visionaries of Russian Formalism. And there were certainly authoritarian currents, especially those that later formalized as the RAPP, who were rearing their heads, ready to strike. But the vibrant atmosphere in the early 20s was radically different from the iron fist of Stalin’s cultural code.

Indeed, ca. 1921, much of mass-produced War Communism state propaganda was being rendered in perfectly avant-garde, futurist-like fashions. In fact, the first artistic organization of any consequence in the revolution to advocate an aesthetic of “heroic realism,” the AKhRR, was only launched in 1922, at a time when Futurists, Constructivists, Formalists, and activists of the Proletkult—even though the last had been subsumed into the Commissariat of Education in late 1920, and by encouragement of Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Education and Proletkult’s own central leader—still exerted substantial influence in cultural spheres. (Spahr somewhat glorifies the Proletkult, apparently unaware of the group’s ahistorical, avant la Maoist rejection of any “bourgeois” artistic traditions. She may wish to consider Trotsky’s withering critique in Literature and Revolution of the group’s far-left line; Lenin himself, in fact, was even more invectively polemical against the Proletkult’s attempts to suppress the achievements of bourgeois culture and engineer a “proletarian” one.)

Within deep, general privations and anxieties, elements of a centralizing ideology were making themselves increasingly felt, no question. And some of the people doing bad stuff were not merely Stalinists. In midst of war, Lenin, in particular, and also Trotsky, along with other leaders, made very awful decisions, sometimes reprehensible ones, we would agree. Frightening ones, much as Lincoln, our own national Saint did. But for a good portion of the NEP period, following the terrible civil war (theirs, not ours), cultural matters became even more variegated, in many ways. Even if not for long. In a few years, Stalin would defeat the Left Opposition, most of whose tens of thousands of long-time Bolshevik cadre would be exterminated.

Spahr’s related confusions about Lenin’s argument in “Party Organization and Party Literature” are maybe even more startling. In fact, in her linking of Lenin’s short polemic to a “social realist” policy enacted almost three decades later, she makes clear she really has not read the article. If she had, she would have come across the below extended passage, where Lenin is at pains to emphasize that he is only speaking of Party literature in conditions of opposition and contestation for power (he is mainly talking about party newspapers and journals, actually), and not some commanding state direction in the arts.

In leaving off with Lenin’s quote, I will say that I look forward to reading Spahr’s book, which, while it covers a topic already well-trod (nothing late-breaking about the CIA and the Congress of Cultural Freedom!), may well contain some interesting new material. The tentacles of the Imperial State do certainly reach deep into the literary field and its institutions, not least poetry, as we have seen, with the Paris Review and the Poetry Foundation, among others, and with the sometimes-aware, sometimes-unwitting participation of prominent figures (including avowed leftists). But given Spahr’s unfortunate misunderstandings in the paragraph you cite, any socialist will want to read her book with a jaundiced eye, I’d say.

Here is Lenin, then, the advocate of Socialist Realism, as Spahr would have it, way back in 1905:

Calm yourselves, gentlemen! First of all, we are discussing party literature and its subordination to party control. Everyone is free to write and say whatever he likes, without any restrictions. But every voluntary association (including the party) is also free to expel members who use the name of the party to advocate anti-party views. Freedom of speech and the press must be complete. But then freedom of association must be complete too. I am bound to accord you, in the name of free speech, the full right to shout, lie and write to your heart’s content. But you are bound to grant me, in the name of freedom of association, the right to enter into, or withdraw from, association with people advocating this or that view. The party is a voluntary association, which would inevitably break up, first ideologically and then physically, if it did not cleanse itself of people advocating anti-party views. And to define the border-line between party and anti-party there is the party programme, the party’s resolutions on tactics and its rules and, lastly, the entire experience of international Social-Democracy, the voluntary international associations of the proletariat, which has constantly brought into its parties individual elements and trends not fully consistent, not completely Marxist and not altogether correct and which, on the other hand, has constantly conducted periodical “cleansings” of its ranks. So it will be with us too, supporters of bourgeois “freedom of criticism”, within the Party. We are now becoming a mass party all at once, changing abruptly to an open organisation, and it is inevitable that we shall be joined by many who are inconsistent (from the Marxist standpoint), perhaps we shall be joined even by some Christian elements, and even by some mystics. We have sound stomachs and we are rock-like Marxists. We shall digest those inconsistent elements. Freedom of thought and freedom of criticism within the Party will never make us forget about the freedom of organising people into those voluntary associations known as parties.

I know it’s dreary. Just like those pesky Protestants, the Leftys can’t stop finding little things to justify not talking to their former friends. Maybe even shooting them if they could. Too many people want to be right (and therefore in charge) more than they want to win the struggle. Don’t give up, my dear. History is on your side. Or so I heard. A while ago.

Long live the ILWU. And long live Julius Martov, the heroic person whom Trotsky famously condemned to “the dustbin of history.”

 

—Emily Post-Avant