Richard Barbrook on Sun, 16 Mar 97 20:55 MET

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nettime: Cold War myths


As a social democrat, I feel that I can't let the inverted Stalinism
presented in Igor Markovic's recent posting go unanswered. If nettime is to
be denounced as recapitulating the history of the European Left, I think
that we should make clear on who's side in these past debates we identify
ourselves with. 

I think the fundamental error in Igor's post is the assumption that the
Bolsheviks were actually faithful followers of Marx's teachings. Igor was
trained well by his Stalinist teachers! However, as Jean Longuet (Marx's
grandson and a French Socialist deputy) pointed out, Bolshevism was really a
bizarre synthesis of anarchism and Jacobinism. This is not surprising as
Russia in the beginning of this century was an overwhelmingly peasant
country rather than an industrial one. Russian revolutionaries did adopt the
discourse of western socialism, but, even when the revolution happened, they
were in no position to put any of its principles into practice.
Industrialisation, not social democracy, was the urgent task of the times.

Even before 1917, Lenin had abandoned Marx's conception of the open mass
membership socialist party in favour of creating a closed revolutionary
conspiracy of intellectuals. In doing so, he was taking Bakunin's side
against Marx in the 1874 split within the First International. After the
collapse of the International, the Marx family were involved in setting up
socialist parties: the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party and
the German Social Democratic Party. These organisations have many many
faults, but they're certainly not Stalinist!

After the 1917 revolution, the differences between Marxists (the Menshevik
party) and Leninists (the Bolshevik party) were clear. For the Marxists, the
first priority was the establishment of a parliamentary democracy and the
recognition of trade union rights because social democracy could not be
created within an underdeveloped country. For the Leninists, the main aim
was the creation of a party dictatorship which would defend the revolution
against its internal and external enemies in the name of an imaginary form
of socialism. In the circumstances of the time, the latter position can be
seen as more "realistic" but certainly not Marxist! 

Crucially, contrary to Igor's claim, democracy was not destroyed in Russia
by the supression of the Kronstadt Soviet in 1921. This crime was in fact
the culmination of a long period of repression whose key moment was the
dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 by the Bolsheviks
(and their then anarchist allies). The Mensheviks correctly predicted that
this move would lead to disaster. Karl Kautsky - "the pope of Marxism" -
denounced this reactionary move as pure Jacobinism. Lenin and Trotsky's
squirming replies to these criticisms make amusing reading for those with a
taste in Jesuitical casuitry!

So what has all this to do with nettime? Well Igor's post is yet another
example of the post-modern fashion for "throwing the baby out with the
bathwater". For instance, over the past two decades, many French
intellectuals haven't just rejected socialism but even the Enlightenment in
a effort to put as large as possible distance between themselves and their
former naive enthusiasm for Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. With the Cold War over,
we should no longer feel ourselves trapped within an ideological prison
where we're forced to choose between the two unpalatable ideologies of the
superpowers. Above all, we certainly shouldn't support the racist and
elitist policies of the Californian ideologues simply because they're not

While Marx and Engels' politics may not be very relevant for contemporary
social democratic parties, there are many useful theoretical concepts still
to be lifted from their work. For instance, their critique of political
economy is extremely relevant for those of us who wish to understand the
current attempts to commodify the Net. If we're to challenge people like
Kevin Kelly who erroneously believe that free markets are a Darwinian
eco-system, their penetrating historical analysis of liberal capitalism
seems at least one point from which we should start from. As a product of
the last century, Marx and Engels' writings certainly can't provide all the
answers. However, to ignore them altogther because Russian totalitarians
once found them a convenient excuse for their undemocratic rule seems
absurd. It's as stupid as rejecting the republican form of government
because the repulsive Newt Gingrich is the leader of the Republican party in
the USA! The Cold War is over - and we should make the most of it....

Dr. Richard Barbrook
Hypermedia Research Centre
School of Design & Media
University of Westminster
Watford Road
Northwick Park

+44 (0)171-911-5000 x 4590

"...the History of the World is nothing but the development
of the Idea of Freedom." - Georg Hegel

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