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"Animal Farmism"

Recently I have been reading Cat Valente's novel Deathless.  In the past I have thoroughly enjoyed Valente's novels––the Orphan's Tales were a beautiful and intricate neo 1001 Nights, the Dirge for Prester John was gripping and invocative––but I have found this book terribly annoying.  Since the setting is the early decades of the Soviet Union, beginning with the Russian Revolution, I had hoped Valente's exploration of Slavic folklore in this context would be as thoughtful as her treatment of medieval and renaissance history in the Dirge.  Unfortunately, this is not the case; the revolutionary Russia she depicts appears to be lifted from an American cold war film or the pages of the reactionary historiographies of Robert Conquest and his ilk.  Or maybe this depiction is just the result of family anecdotes gleaned from her husband––who would have been, it should be noted, born in a Russia already fully dominated by capitalist roaders who wanted the Soviet Union to collapse and who themselves denounced the communist past Valente is failing to depict in any critically nuanced manner.

This American "common sense" understanding of the former Soviet Union––and of all failed communisms––has become so normatively banal that, in lieu of studying critical historical debates, the lay historian can make the most uncritical and ahistorical claims without seeming, to the average US reader, as if they're misrepresenting history.  Just reading the woeful inaccuracies of Valente's Deathless is cringe worthy.  Like where she claims that Russian children in Lenin's day were being taught that it was a good thing for Russia to enter World War One when the truth is that the Bolsheviks organized against this war.  Or the asinine claims that people in the party were all getting fat on good food while the rest of the population was starving.  Or that Tsarist Russia was more liberating and peaceful than Soviet Russia.  Truly the most mindless understanding of the Russian Revolution: we don't have to argue that it was a workers paradise to reject these simplistic views.

As I've argued elsewhere this uncritical anti-communism that finds its way into novels is becoming rather tired.  And yet, tired as it might be, it continues to persist with an almost senile strength.

Anti-communist "literature" hasn't changed since Orwell wrote his stupidest book.

So Valente's Deathless is just another example of the resurgence of anti-communist literature and cinema that now, in the midst of an economic crisis, is being overproduced as if to remind the masses about past failures so they will accept that capitalism is "the best of the worse", or "the end of history".  None of this is to say that Valente is part of some bourgeois conspiracy (she isn't, this kind of analysis is silly and idealist), but only to say that she is uncritically reproducing the ruling ideas of the ruling classes and that maybe these kinds of books are being overproduced and over-promoted in the current social context.  We must ask how Deathless would fare if Valente presented a more nuanced and less cold warrior view of the Russian Revolution.

Unfortunately, even amongst large and vocal sections of the mainstream left at the centres of capitalism (especially in the US and Canada) these "common sense" views of the Russian Revolution (or any communist revolution, for that matter) possess a very strong cache.  So much so that people fall back on dogmatic rearticulations of reactionary history whenever they are presented with critical counterpoints to the idea that places like the Soviet Union were not dystopian totalitarianisms no different from Nazi Germany.  Take, for example, this recent article that was posted on Znet where the author argues that the Soviet Union, despite its problems, was a far more humane and liberatory place to live than the entire capitalist world even at the height of "stalinism".  And though the author is quite clear that members of his family were unjustly targeted by "stalinist" paranoia in this context, and does not justify this targeting, the liberal population of lay historians who lurk /r/socialism and imagine they are critical leftists foam at the mouth the moment someone challenges their "common sense" notions of with critical nuance.  Even though this author argued that, contrary to early Soviet propaganda, the Soviet Union was not a workers' paradise, readers who imagine they are critical but are really just repeating what they learned from simple-minded high school textbooks become angry because the author is not arguing that the Soviet Union is worse than the capitalist world.

And this is really what this attitude amounts to: the socialized desire for all attempted communisms to be failures, the sublimated impulse to accept capitalism as the end of history, the substitution of a historical materialist engagement of actually existing socialisms with an idealist utopianism that is incapable of providing the theory and practice capable of struggling against capitalism.  Because, really, how else can we explain the knee-jerk "animal farmism" amongst broad sectors of the left at the centres of capitalism whenever the Soviet Union (or Mao's China, for that matter) is raised?  When serious historiographies challenging the cold warrior narrative are presented, or arguments that are made in the academic context of "Sovietology" (which is actually dominated by liberals but liberals who have a more nuanced view of the Soviet Union than even some people who call themselves "marxist") are raised, some people react like they belong in a religious cult dedicated to preserving a narrative they never really studied but learned from cold war propaganda.  And this attitude becomes tragically humourous when it tries to masquerade as "critical", when it acts as if defending the ruling ideas of the ruling classes about actually existing socialism is somehow laudable, and when its adherents accuse people of challenge this "common sense" narrative of the very dogmatism that they themselves demonstrate by their banal ideas about soviet history.

None of this means, however, that we should combat this "animal farmism" by adopting an equally uncritical apologetics for the former Soviet Union.  Obviously it collapsed and if it collapsed then it failed in some way––just not the way, I argue, promoted by simplistic theories of totalitarianism.  If we uphold the successes of actually existing socialism then we have to do so in a non-utopian manner.  Hence the need, as I've argued at various points on this blog, to critically appraise the successes and the failures, refusing to focus on one at the expense of the other.


  1. Seems like the key to success also was the key to failure, and the key was the party. When the party became dominated by 'capitalist-roaders' the masses were passive before that powerful organization they have trusted so long. Mao, and to some extent Stalin, tried to solve this by mass campaigns, but they failed. The 'nomenklatura' had already transformed itself to be bourgeois and out of reach for ordinary people. It controlled the military and the police. This indicates that not only 'capitalist-roaders' in the party, but the party itself, might be the target for mass risings.

    1. Agreed… but clearly the moment where the party might become "the key to failure" is during socialism whereas, before the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the revolutionary party is the only thing that can produce a break with capitalism.

  2. From this post:

    "but liberals who have a more nuanced view of the Soviet Union than even some people who call themselves 'marxist' "

    I agree with this. I have found liberal and progressive historians of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union such as Alexander Rabinowitch, Sheila Fitzpatrick, and J. Arch Getty to be a lot more fair and even handed then many so-called socialists in evaluating these complex historical events.


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