'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, January 04, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Whisperers: Private Life in the Time of Stalin 

Through the publication of The Whisperers, Orlando Figes has presented us with a profound work of scholarship that will endure as one of the most nuanced personal accounts of the ravages of Stalinism. Integrating social and political history with the individual experiences of government officials, peasants, industrial workers and Gulag survivors, his account reads like one of Tolstoy's novels.

Of course, I was both riveted and appalled by the day to day brutalities, the tragedy of shattered lives amid the idealism associated with the attempted construction of a socialist utopia, but I became engrossed through the accumulation of detail about the lives of the individuals and families over the course of the Stalinist period. Only a fellow academic, with the ability to review this monumental achievement in the course of their work, can provide a comprehensive evaluation. As a blogger, with a family and a day job, I can only emphasize some of the more fascinating aspects of the book.

Figes is masterful at relating how people, often through necessity, became obsessed with their public class identity. Significantly, as illuminated through personal accounts cited by Figes, this was a primary feature of Soviet life from the country's inception. Communists, and what little remained of the proletariat after the civil war, were privileged. People on the losing side of the civil war, including their children, were not. Such privileges were given expression in the most petty ways, at work, at school and in the allocation of scarce resources, such as housing. Hence, people quickly understood that nothing was more essential than manufacturing a proletarian identity for themselves if they did not already possess it.

Many surviving offspring of the aristocracy, the Czarist bureaucracy, merchants and the intelligentsia consciously educated themselves at vocational schools for industrial work, because such work automatically recast them as proletarian. Once they had obtained degrees and worked in the factory, they could then subsequently qualify for preferences that would enable them to become doctors, engineers and technicians. As you might guess, Figes provides numerous examples of the ingenuity associated with this endeavor.

The consequences of this social process were twofold. First, there was always this residual anxiety that the Party had been infiltrated by class enemies, requiring periodic purges to cleanse them. Second, the policy of rapid industrialization set forth in the Five Year Plan of 1928, and the professional education of proletarians required to administer it, produced the bureaucracy so maligned by Trotsky and others as state capitalism. Figes explains their ascension to positions of authority and the consumerism associated with their exclusive lifestyle.

Stalin brilliantly manipulated the social tensions released by this process to destroy the Party created by Lenin, and substitute himself in its place. Figes identifies five interrelated reasons as to why he was able to do so with such success through the Great Terror of the late 1930s: (1) the strong identification of the newly created proletarians with Stalin and the Communist project, an identification compelled by a craving for personal acceptance; (2) competition within the bureaucracy as ambitious subordinates informed on their superiors to create promotional opportunities for themselves; (3) the hostility of actual proletarians to the privileges restricted to Party leadership; (4) the willingness of people to inform on others to save themselves; and, finally, (5) fear of fascism.

To his credit, Figes recognizes that Stalinism was not possible without the complicity of many Soviet citizens. Chronic housing shortages, and the placement of families within the rooms of houses and apartments, played an essential role in the Soviet system of surveillance. Community housing, originally idealized as a way of architectually fostering social bonds between people, was transformed into a means whereby it became impossible to speak about any subject without fear of being overheard and denounced. Thus, as related by many interview subjects, the necessity of whispering as symbolized by the title of the book.

If one looks carefully, there are some flaws in the grand conception of The Whisperers. Figes rightly emphasizes the fundamentalist vision of the Communists that prevailed in the Civil War, and the centralization of power in the succeeding years, a centralization that served as precondition to the terror and the cult of Stalin. One looks in vain, however, for any acknowledgement of the dilemma recognized 50 years ago by Isaac Deutscher in his three volume biography of Trotsky. The Communists won the Civil War at the cost of the near destruction of the proletariat in whose name they purported to rule. How then, to proceed?

Stalinism was certainly one answer, perhaps the only one, if the Communists intended to perserve their power, and indeed, even survive, as the equivocation of Stalin's opponents, Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, suggests. From the tone of The Whisperers, one gets the impression that Figes believes that the liberalism of the NEP should have been expanded, but even Figes points out the resentment, verging upon violence, that the rapid accumulation of wealth by merchants was engendering in the laboring classes. Of course, Stalinism was a human atrocity, but it would have been bracing to read Figes' perspective as to whether the Communists could have survived at all by taking a different path.

Figes also fails to place the consolidation of Communist power prior to Stalinism in the context of a capitalist world that was uniformly hostile to it. Britain, the US, France, Germany and Japan did want the Communists to be overthrown. Britain and France did not change this policy until they faced the peril of the Nazis, and, even then, Stalin believed, perhaps correctly, that they really wanted to instigate a war between the Soviet Union and Germany to protect themselves. The Communists lacked the prospect of any foreign investment that would have financed the industrial ambitions of the Five Year Plan. As Gorbachev learned about 60 years later, there was no Third Way as far as American, Japanese and European capitalists were concerned. Thus, the troubling historical question, one that eludes the liberal Figes: to what extent was the West, as it was known then, complicit in the atrocities of Stalinism?

Accordingly, in regard to his presentation of his peasant victims, one wonders whether Figes has simplified the political conflict between Communists and communal land owners in the villages. Invariably, these kulaks are presented as socially benevolent, while the proponents of collectivization come across as malicious. To be fair, this is not totally true, the urban Communists involved in collectivization are described as displaying a misguided idealism, but the peasant proponents tend to appear as envious of the accomplishments of the victims. Of course, that's predictable given the accounts of the victims, and the subsequent failure of collectivization itself. Even so, the skill of measured political and moral evalution that Figes exhibits elsewhere is not so pronounced in this instance.

As I read The Whisperers, I recalled Baudrillard's analysis of Marxism in the 1970s. Marxism, he seditiously concluded, crippled the revolutionary potential of the populace by accepting a proletarian class identity conceived and imposed by the bourgeoisie. Figes describes the inevitable consequences of this permanent disability: an obsession with class that requires a tentacular bureaucracy to distribute rewards and punishments, all the while eviscerating the capacity of people to aspire to a more perfect world. The Whisperers can be implicitly read, against the sober liberalism of the author, as supportive of Baudrillard's belief that the spontaneity of the Paris Commune is superior to the scientific historicism of the October Revolution.

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