‘The immobile Mongol’
Two spectres from the east haunt the western imagination, the oriental despot and the communist revolution. Gavin Murphy examines the ‘othering’ of the Russian through two texts bookending the twentieth century: Orlando Figes’ historical account and Liam O’Flaherty’s personal travelogue.
This essay examines the ‘othering’ of the Russian in the revolutionary context through two contrasting accounts: Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (1998) and Liam O’Flaherty’s I Went to Russia, recounting his visit to Russia in 1930. The odd juxtaposition of a major historical text and a personal travelogue, each coming from the opposite ends of the twentieth century, is motivated by the desire to give a sense of standard liberal/left positions which have solidified to define the legacy of the Russian Revolution in the West. I am particularly concerned with differing notions of tragedy when applied to the Russian Revolution: from a sense that things could have been otherwise to an inevitable pathos as the wretched of the earth seek their place in history.
Think of the east and think of the Orient: an exotic other, a place whose time has been. It is characterized by a fading sense of greatness and splendour. The figure of the despot looms large, whether as a figure of absolute power or cruel duplicity. It belongs to a problematic mode of discourse Edward Said has called ‘Orientalism’,which is formed from the material interests of the West and serves its shifting needs. It is at once a European fantasy and a framing of its cultural contestant. It is an imaginative yearning and a locus of repulsion and desire. It is a spectre haunting Europe.
There is another east and another spectre which has haunted Europe. The opening line of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848) pointed to a holy alliance of powers brought together to exorcise the spectre of Communism. Communism arose from class antagonism and was to represent the interests of the ordinary worker. A vanguard sought to organize proletarians into a class, into a political party, and forge an international bond through the struggle with the bourgeoisie within and beyond the nation state. Private property would be abolished. All capital would be wrested from the bourgeoisie and the relations of production and distribution would be centralized in the state. A dictatorship of the proletariat would be necessary to ensure transition to collective ownership and communism proper. The dream was that a new kind of freedom and association would emerge: an association in which the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”. It is a wonderful ideal and one not peculiar to Marx and Engels. It can be found at the heart of liberalism and stretches right back to antiquity. It is one we do not associate with communism as it existed in actual circumstance, and, for us, it is an unaffordable luxury in our present state.
Marx and Engels focused their hopes on ‘advanced’ nations such as Germany, believing intense industrialization contained the necessary seed for revolution. Of course, such ideas, and the means by which these could be achieved, did not go uncontested within socialist debate. The more so when the Russian Revolution offered what many would take to be the best opportunity for a communist society to take root, given the failure of other revolts around Europe.
What is less disputed is the idea that the Revolution took place in fraught conditions. The February Revolution was sparked by bread riots brought about by social pressures exacerbated by Russia’s involvement in WW1. The Bolsheviks seized control in the October Revolution by overthrowing the provisional government and consolidating power (in a manner still heavily disputed) through the soviet assemblies. They quashed opposition in the ensuing civil war, despite Allied intervention to support anti-Bolshevik White forces and significant opposition to Bolshevism within socialist circles. The vastness of the empire inherited (from Poland to Central Asia to the Arctic Circle) and the diversity of peoples, nationalities and religious affiliations therein would generate significant challenges. Not surprisingly, this has given rise to numerous debates and perspectives, each selecting key moments and turning points around which revolutionary zeal faltered and dreams faded.
It was John Reed’s point in his account of the Revolution that from all the chaos, violence and upheaval he witnessed, the Bolsheviks were the only party in Russia with a constructive programme and the power to impose it on the country. The refrain that the October Revolution and the social and political structures that emerged were the only show in town capable of laying the foundations for the communist dream is repeated later when one of the leading historians of his generation, Eric Hobsbawn, maintained allegiance to the Communist Party of Great Britain despite growing evidence of Stalin’s brutality.
A younger generation of historians tend to counter such narratives. Orlando Figes, in A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, points to how the lack of a democratic culture in Russian history allowed Bolshevism to take root in the name of democracy and freedom:
Centuries of serfdom and autocratic rule had prevented the ordinary people from acquiring the consciousness of citizens. One can draw a direct line from this serf culture to the despotism of the Bolsheviks.
Figes looks to the “abstract concept of the political nation” and a “constitutional structure of civic rights” which had emerged from the French Revolution as hallmarks of democracy. These ideas would be alien to the Russian peasantry, “confined in their isolated village worlds”. It would be a very different story, Figes argues, had institutions of civil society and a public sphere been allowed to develop under the old tsarist regime. The very fact that the regime was unable to “muster the patriotism of its peasant soldiers” for frontline duty in WW1 revealed the depth of the regime’s failure, in that “the ordinary peasant did not feel that he was subject to its laws”. It is an odd example for Figes to use: the peasantry are certainly not credited with much and the tsarist regime even less so in its inability to lure the village fool into trench warfare. Furthermore, coming from the “backwardness and violence of the Russian village”, Figes argues, the peasantry were complicit in their own downfall as the Revolution quickly degenerated into dictatorship and the horrors of collectivization.
It is a lesson in tough love for Figes. Russia’s prospects of becoming a contemporary democratic nation hang on confronting such bitter truths. The backdrop for his argument is the disaster of the shock therapy which was prescribed after the fall of communism in the 1990s, the rise of the oligarchs and the rule of Putin. It is an interesting point to make. Putin has presented himself as increasingly tsar-like so as to consolidate power. Putin’s 2004 inauguration was presented as a coronation. His infamous walk to the Kremlin cathedrals was accompanied by Glinka’s Glory to the Tsar before he received a blessing from the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Indeed, The Economist notes how Putin has nurtured a class system bound by intermarriage and family ties. The major state-owned firms in oil, gas and banking are managed by the sons of Putin’s friends and colleagues, who perceive their enrichment, it is argued, as less a matter of corruption than a sense of entitlement for loyal service.
The opening of this essay referred to two spectres haunting Europe – the Oriental despot and the fading ghost of Communism. The first has numerous representations roaming contemporary western media, whether in the figure of the Arab, Muslim, Ayatollah, Saudi Prince, Taliban or an Islamic State radical. The second would appear to be a remnant of the past if it were not for the sense of continuity between the forms of despotism characterizing Russian history. Figes, in his more recent writing, finds continuity between the tsar, Bolshevism and Putin in terms of tyrannical governance. If Russia is to have hope, he argues, it lies in exorcising the demon of tyranny.
In his invocation of Oriental despotism, Figes echoes Karl A. Wittfogel’s use of the term in 1957. Wittfogel recognized an “Asiatic mode of production” from the seventeenth century onwards where a managerial bureaucracy was the ruling class. Oriental despotism defines a society “dominated by a bureaucratically despotic state”, where “any form of avowedly benevolent state planning is preferable to the predominance of private property”. Wittfogel found continuity between tsarist Russia and the new totalitarian order under Bolshevism. Wittfogel, like Figes, recognized the influence of western ideas in Russia, and indeed, both championed the antitotalitarian forces and democratic strains of Russian socialism in 1917, lamenting their defeat by Bolshevik forces. This is the tragedy for Figes. The Russian Revolution is a story of what might have been, framed by the desire for a modern form of (western) democratic accountability.
Figes’ desire for “a modern law-based state distributing rights and duties between citizens” is rooted in a long European tradition of political thought, from John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau right through to Hannah Arendt. The idea is that people can experience their fullest freedom only by living in civil society and living under the law. People can be both ruled and free if they can rule themselves by exercising reason and conscience. The law and institutions upholding them can themselves be called to account so long as the mutuality inherent in all promises and civic bonds is not broken. It is in this way, Arendt argues, dissent through civil disobedience implies consent.
The difficulty though is that not everyone is seen to attain the level of civility necessary to exercise good citizenship and governance. “Those who live under the law are civilians”, notes Seamus Deane, “those that live beyond it are barbarians”. Deane, writing in 1985, was concerned with definitions of civility and barbarity as they were imposed upon understandings of conflict in Ireland over time. He takes as an example Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s critique of the United Irishmen and its “nationalism of the French Revolutionary sort”. Coleridge describes local patriotism as the “vindictive turbulence of a wild and barbarous race, brutalised by the oppression of centuries”. The fear is one of a desperate multitude rising up, one ill-equipped to exercise liberty and prone to despotism. This evokes Edmund Burke’s “vast, tremendous, unformed spectre” which animated his critique of the French Revolution in 1790. Burke advocated prudence and moderation while working through established traditions and structures of governance rather than an impulsive adherence to abstract principles.
As evident above, such arguments have been used over time to uphold the status quo. These dynamics are also at play in Figes’ account, even as he reaches back to the French Revolution as a source of inspiration. Although Figes is one of the leading historians on Russia in the English-speaking world, he is partaking in a long tradition of othering of the east through the figure of the Russian peasant, or, elsewhere in the “strange fanaticism of the Russian radical intelligentsia”. Figes draws a clear line between the ‘elementary’ conditions of eastern despotism and the sophistication of western democracy in a manner that is unconvincing.
A similar sense of ‘othering’ can be found in I Went to Russia, Liam O’Flaherty’s account of his visit to the country in 1930. O’Flaherty was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Ireland and editor of its weekly newspaper, The Workers’ Republic. By the time of his journey, his literary pursuits were to the fore. This was not without its troubles, as O’Flaherty rails against a world “indifferent to art” and feels forced by financial circumstances to write a book on the topic of the day – Bolshevism.
His conflicted state is very much the theme of the book. As a writer, he finds himself caught between the indifference of the west and the demands of the east.
Why are you even an artist? A despised and tolerated outcast, forced to beg for food from dullards that are not fit to lick your feet. Here is your chance to ally yourself with people who are your equals. They want to make the whole of humanity feel that the earth belongs to them; at least those with free spirits like yourself.
O’Flaherty is horrified when, in Moscow, his Russian friend outlines the ‘official’ daily routine for writers at the Bureau of Revolutionary Literature. Such discipline, O’Flaherty is informed, is “part of the scheme for the liquidation of anarchy in literary production”. When O’Flaherty hears how “we have no use for the bohemian writer”, he seeks solace in the figure of Baudelaire and the idea that poetry is an affliction that cannot be ‘organized’.
His support for the Russian Revolution throughout the book wavers and wanes. Two images capture this well. The first follows O’Flaherty’s drunken rampage through the ship taking him to Russia. He settles to witness the crew sitting around a table under a portrait of Lenin arguing furiously about the governance of their ship. He is taken by the “savage energy in their voices”, the “crazy sincerity” and violent gestures:
The meeting summed up and contained all that I had seen on board the ship, all that I felt of mystery and of power in Bolshevism. I tried to ridicule it, to tell myself that they were playing at being a Soviet, at running the ship in common. But the atmosphere swept aside reason and ridicule. It was over-powering, like the sudden awe that overcomes a man in a lonely cave at night and forces him to run flying before spooks.
The quote ends with the familiar motif of the spectre. O’Flaherty is repeatedly caught between fear and desire, dream and nightmare. At his most flamboyant, he imagines wandering into the eastern interior of Russia and becoming “an adventurer in the Soviet Army” and “forgetting all of my life that had gone before”. Elsewhere, the sight of watching people at work in Moscow rekindles childhood memories of basket makers, tailors and sowers in the fields. He finds beauty in the comfort and pride shown in work and not the suffering and slavish toil he usually associates with city life. This reverie, however, quickly fades:
Europe is doomed. Yet I will to remain with it and be destroyed rather than ally myself with this alien power, which has an alien, myriad-headed God, a clinging monster, belching smoke, made of steel, brutal, without the refined, singing beauty that can alone satisfy my soul.
O’Flaherty fears the ‘Russian hordes’, finding them spectral, monstrous and barbaric. His understanding of the people he encounters is rooted in characters of Dostoyevsky’s novels he so loves, those:
… wild and wonderful geniuses, ashamed of their barbaric ancestors, clawing greedily at all the beautiful philosophies of Europe, to use as tools for paring off their savage humps and warts.
In short, while O’Flaherty finds vitality in the revolutionary impulse and richness in the Russians’ ambition and reach, Russia and the Revolution are ultimately other than Europe.
The second image arises when he enters a saloon in Leningrad where a rabble of officers are clapping and thumping the table to a radio broadcast of revolutionary songs sung by a choir of “maidens and youths”. It is worth quoting O’Flaherty at length:
I was exalted by the singing. I could see people wandering over vast plains, searching. I heard the wind singing in the long faded grasses of the steppes. It was a voice weary of wandering, melancholy with suffering, but triumphant in sight of its goal. It was the voice of the children of Russia coming out of the land of bondage, out of servitude, out of savagery, out of subjection to the brutal vastness of their country. It was the voice of a people who had found a prophet and listened to his exhortation and rose up in a mass, united, enthused by his genius. What a tumult! What a host of marching men and women! Famine thins them by millions but they march, pressed on by great hordes in their rear. Their blood is dark like the earth. Their passions are fierce. They are simple like children and savage like the wolves in their forests. Their dancing is barbaric. Their singing is a wild chant, full of the earth’s richness, but terrible to our ears, like the crying of animals in a forest afar off. It is an avalanche, this downpour of countless millions, pouring down on Europe, singing, dancing, wailing, lean with hunger.
There are numerous romantic tropes at play in this vision: the wandering melancholic, the tantalizing vision of freedom, the primitive vitality of a people, nature as a raw elemental force and the inevitable tragedy besetting mankind. A rich empathy is forged from this sense of fate. “It is a terrible thing to be old”, writes O’Flaherty, “for the old are unable to submerge their intellects in the delusions of youth”. “Human life”, he continues, “is governed by the same ruthless competition and brazen anarchy which governs the growth of nature”. It is only the mad who conquer worlds, “Defeat is for us, who linger by the pool of reason”. By way of recompense, great literature arises from engaging with man’s acquisitive lust, scheming and viciousness.
Edmund Burke recognized differing forms of revolution, between those arising from “wantonness and fullness of bread” and those drawing their sustenance from the “bottom of human nature”. O’Flaherty’s revolt is of the former – wild, impulsive, decadent, anarchic and at times nihilistic. His is a revolution of one. The revolt of the latter – that “swinish multitude” – if we hold to Burke, will need a strong hand to coerce them and therein lies the seed of despotism. Burke’s instincts before the unfolding events of the French Revolution sensed this. Almost a century and a half later O’Flaherty finally saw the Russian Revolution as “a savage attempt by enormous masses of peasants to get bread and culture”.
Everywhere I found the intellectual wreck of the old Russian grandeur, a nervous pulsating, worried, unstable mass of human beings, merely held together by terror of the enemies that surrounded them and by the masses that pushed them from the rear, by hunger, by lack of all the necessities of life, by a mystical frenzy which envisaged the conquest of the world.
The Russians may be other to O’Flaherty. They and the Revolution are as much (European) literary constructs as observable phenomena, helping to define O’Flaherty to himself and his place in the world. Said’s critique of Orientalism was brought into play to highlight this as, at best, limited and at worst, problematic. But there is something in the quote above, something arising from its rich intimacy and empathy with the plight of a shivering horde that animates O’Flaherty’s own past: an Aran islander, astute to its history and hardship; a reputedly shell-shocked war veteran; a radical who took to the Rotunda with Dublin’s unemployed and raising the red flag days after the establishment of the Irish Free State; a character whose novels were banned by a new independent Ireland who often lived in penury and who battled with his demons. O’Flaherty may well have been tempted to characterize the Revolution in terms of folly, hubris and the vanity of mankind as the tragic mode impels. But what endures is his struggle to be and become, and how, in turn, revolution is seen to be but one route by which the “wretched of the earth” struggle to be and become and so enter into history. In each, paths taken are unexpected and unknown. O’Flaherty’s account is at once compelling and questionable. I would, despite my wisdom, happily have a drink with him.
The differing sense of tragedy in Figes’ and O’Flaherty’s accounts is worthy of further scrutiny. Figes’ tragedy – clearly foregrounded in the title of his book – does raise concerns. There is a proselytizing zeal at the heart of his project which finds its counterpart in the figure of Marx himself. This, no doubt, would be to the horror of Figes. For him, the backward Russian peasant, presumably as ill-equipped to the demands of citizenry in revolutionary times as now, must undergo a radical transformation or ‘modernization’ if Russia is to have a worthwhile future. In other words, the modernizing force of western democracy must overcome the long legacy of Oriental despotism. Marx, in his writings on India where he travelled from 1853 to 1858, also thought in similar terms when he considered the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. Consider the following passage:
… these idyllic villages, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.
Marx and Figes are on remarkably similar ground when they identify the core problem. It is uncanny, having read Figes, to listen to Marx’s solution proposed in the mid nineteenth century:
England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the layering of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.
Said makes the point in Orientialism that no matter how destructive colonial expansion in India had been, Marx maintained the view that the subsequent suffering of its peoples created the possibility of radical social transformation. It is only by this othering, by the creation of a collective Orient, that Marx was able to negate what Said later calls, “existential human identities” in his effort to forward his theory.
For Figes, the tragedy of the Russian Revolution is the unnecessary horror its people had to endure as things could well have been otherwise. He makes this clear when discussing the suppression of Menshevik and anarchist dissent in the October Revolution. The lack of democratic accountability as a form of governance stretches from the Bolshevik revolution to the present context with Putin and his cronies. The most recent wave of ‘westernization’ – the shock therapy in the 1990s – clearly did not work as intended (in Figes’ terms at least) so there is still a job to be done. Figes’ efforts to remedy this situation is every bit as messianic as that of Marx. It is also as optimistic, as if the forces of democratization are antithetical to imperialist or expansionist ambition.
What is interesting is that Figes’ view of Putin as increasingly tsar-like and despotic does not quite tally with Putin’s view of western democracy. Gleb Pavlovsky, who, along with Vladislav Surkov, was one of the key advisors and leading ‘political technologists’ for Putin until 2011, describes Putin view of capitalism as follows:
a kingdom of demagogues, behind whom stands big money, and behind that, a military machine which aspires to control the whole world … there’s a wonderful system with two parties, one passes power to the other, and behind them stands one and the same thing: capital.
Putin’s aim to ‘modernize’ Russia, according to Pavlosky, is to introduce a similar two-party system so that the elite need not be threatened if there was a change in government. It is clear Figes has not quite anticipated this vision of western ‘democracy’ as a model of inspiration for Putin and an increasingly familiar model for us in these dark times. One senses an erosion of the very values Figes upholds as a definition of the West – open democratic accountability and constitutionally grounded civic rights – at the same time as Figes seeks to impose these ideals upon a new Russia. Tragedy, in Figes case, is as much a story of what might have been as of what ought to be. Figes, as Marx, is highly problematic when it comes to the othering of an illiberal or non-western subject in an effort to bring about change. The othering is one thing in and of itself, its performance within a grander complex of social and economic forces beyond the control of each writer, is another.
This is what makes O’Flaherty’s doubt compelling. O’Flaherty’s discomfort lies in his recognition of the perils of the proselytizing impulse. His drift away from previous political engagement towards more literary ventures is discussed in terms of the delusion and folly of youth as he recognizes the limits of his own reasoned and mature stance. He is enthralled by the unrefined vitality of the communist voice, frightened by the scale of its unrelenting momentum, and taken by those threatened by this ‘mystical frenzy’. He is sensitive to the suffering in the midst of confusion and violent upheaval. But ultimately, for O’Flaherty, Russia and the revolution are other than Europe and so a profound ambivalence and disillusionment marks his work.
Figes and O’Flaherty: one is a passionate democrat, the other a jaded communist. They are separated by conviction and doubt. Their polarity may well sketch the dilemma at the heart of a European liberal tradition of thought. One is zealous, committed to grand ideals and lured by the ‘certainties’ of difference between us and them, despite our times of grave uncertainty. The other is world-weary yet recognizes passivity as an unacceptable recipe for servitude. Both maintain boundaries between self and other, remain sensitive to the tragic plight of the other, and are ever aware of the tension between individual and collective needs. They diverge on the matter of what is to be done. In an age when illiberal forces muster in every sphere of our lives, growing as they have from within western liberal traditions themselves (and seemingly exacerbated by Russian political connections and technological interference), it may well be asked what is to be done, indeed. A deep re-examination of the traditional opposition of the ‘modernizing’ force of western democracy and Oriental despotism is one thing. It is another to begin to re-imagine new forums and platforms for the democratic impulse and wrest back control over our lives.