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

Monday, September 20, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Foundation Pit 

Andrey Platonov lived much of his life in the USSR during the Leninist and Stalinist periods, but his novels, short stories, plays and film scripts only became known, in the form that he had written them, after it no longer existed. New English translations of them continue to filter out into the marketplace, such as the New York Review Books release of The Foundation Pit last year. He has been celebrated as a allegorical, spiritual voice of the absurdities and horrors of Stalinism.

Without question, Platonov was a very fine writer, but we should be careful about incorporating his work into an American anti-communist perspective, least we lose sight of his actual accomplishments. In The Foundation Pit, a short, 150 page novella, he relates the brutalities of the collectivization of agriculture in seemingly surreal fashion. But, as two of the translators, Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, remind us: This impression is, however, misleading; they contain barely an incident or passage of dialogue that does not directly relate to some real event or publication from these years.

Hence, in the broadest possible sense, Platonov appropriates them to create his own deformed language so as to reveal the depraved social relations that accompanied collectivization. Furthermore, according to Chandler and Meerson, he had been heavily influenced by 19th and early 20th Century Russian Orthodox religious philosophers, leading him to conclude that communism should not aspire to eliminate religious faith, but rather, to improve upon it: Many of us think that it is possible to take faith away without giving people anything better. The soul of contemporary man is organized in such a way that if faith is removed from it, it will be completely overturned.

In The Foundation Pit, Platonov examines the catastrophic consequences of the failure of the Bolshevik Revolution to provide what he described as more than religion to substitute for the Christian faith that it sought to subordinate to the state, resulting in what he characterized as the end of the socialist generation. The narrative itself is fairly simple: a thirty year old man, Voshchev, is discharged from his workplace, and wanders off into the countryside, where he comes across a group of workers in another town. They have been assigned to dig out a foundation pit for a new proletarian home envisioned by by Prushevsky, an architect. He joins them, and encounters a number of characters symbolically associated with the first Five Year Plan. In the latter part of the novel, he travels with several of them, and participates in the forced collectivization of a nearby village.

One of the great paradoxes of the novel is that the collectivization of the peasantry is facilitated by their practice of Russian Orthodox religious rituals. A group of peasants designated as kulaks accomodate themselves to their fate by their communal expression of farewell to those who sent them away, while those who remain consecrate their abandonment of their homes and their entry into the collective through behaviour consistent with the rite of Forgiveness Sunday. Of course, it goes without saying that the action of pauperizing one's self for the general good is a profoundly Christian act. More generally, the authors of the directives for the implementation of collectivization insist that enthusiasm is the essential attribute for the undertaking, a religious state as opposed to a material one. Even the activist responsible for the collectivization of the village cannot avoid memorializing it in reports that take on a distinctly religious tone. Platonov recognized that the utopianism responsible for the atrocities of collectivization required a perversion of spiritual as well as material aspirations.

Meanwhile, the proletariat, as manifest in the menagerie of characters involved in the digging of the pit, is in perpetual movement without making any progress anywhere, except towards death, and, indeed, those who embrace their proletarian identity have a higher mortality rate than those who do not. Here, Platonov hints at the heresy of Cherkazov, among others, namely that the proletariat is a creation of the bourgeoisie. One can therefore construe the collectivization process imposed upon the peasantry by the proletariat in The Foundation Pit as a bourgeois one, which sounds implausible, until one recalls that, according to James Scott, US capitalists took a great interest in Soviet collectivization because of the economies of scale that they thought could be obtained through the application of industrial processes to agriculture.

There is a contemporary resonance to the narrative as well. The proponents of collectivization proceed, with a religious fervor already described, to force the peasantry to sever themselves from all reassuring bonds of their former lives, their small plots, their homes, their livestock, their Christian religion, and, in some instances, even their relatives, if the relatives had been found to be kulaks. Upon doing so, the peasants then adopted a relatively more atomized existence within the collective farm. Platonov leaves it to the reader to speculate as to their survival in such stark conditions.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It is precisely what has happened in much of the lesser developed world in the last 40 years, where indigenous peoples have been compelled, through lesser degrees of coercion and violence, to leave their villages and live as either poorly paid industrial workers or participants in the informal sector. Much like the party members of the early Stalinist period, the contemporary proponents of this social transformation have rationalized it in similarly messianic terms (most obviously, Thatcher and Reagan, but also Friedman's conflation of freedom with market participation.) Ultimately, Platonov cautions us against the extremism inherent in all involuntary modernization projects. It has fallen to those on the anti-authoritarian left in South America and elsewhere to organize a resistance centered around the family, the community and even a religious cosmology, as Raul Zibechi has observed in relation the Aymara people in Bolivia.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?