Michael Moorcock, The Land Leviathan

1Of course I’ve read a moderate amount of Michael Moorcock, but I haven’t for some time and, as I finished the Jack Vance book and went to the library for the next volume I looked for a change of pace to take along with the Vance. Moorcock had been on my mind for a while now, because he, as much as anyone I can think of–save Octavia Butler–is the great example of an intellectually-rigorous, politically-Left sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction.

Genuinely excellent politically engaged literature is not easy to come by, but it’s fantastic when one does. I wouldn’t even say so much that both Moorcock and Butler are writers first and advocates of a political agenda second but that their politics is inseparable from their storytelling and their storytelling is that much more compelling because it does have political content.

Now, I had been very aware of Moorcock’s politics even before I’d read any of the Elric books, which threaded a critique of the type of Christian morality (and its political form) that presented itself, much more artfully to be sure than in C.S. Lewis‘ fantasies, in Tolkien. It is easy and not wrong to link Moorcock’s coherently anarchist sensibilities to his most famous hero, whose first act in the narrative was to dismantle a government.

I write this, but I will say that I was almost taken aback by precisely how front and center the politics are in The Land Leviathan, much more so than in at least the original Elric stories. Briefly, the book can be described as an “alternate history,” the first of its kind that I’ve read per se. Oswald Bastable, Victorian Englishman, has become, much like Vonnegut’s hero but admittedly less funny, unstuck in time. Bastable finds himself bouncing back and forth between alternate futures and pasts. In the one that occupies this book’s narrative, he finds himself in an alternate first decade of the twentieth century. Development of advanced technologies have given the human race extraordinary powers of destruction, and by the time Bastable arrives on the scene global war has been going on for years and the countries which had run the nineteenth century more or less have been reduced to rubble. Bastable uses the word “Apocalypse” more than once.

The healthiest society on the planet, pacifist and isolationist, is the former South Africa, named Bantustan, led by President Ghandi. Other African peoples are led by “The Black Attila,” a black American man who only appears if my memory is correct in the last third of the book. Prior to that, he exists only in reputation. The Europeans or those of European ancestry from whom Bastable hears rumor consider him to be simultaneously a genius and a savage. He has, it is said, declared genocidal war on the white race. Moorcock’s alternate past is, more or less, an inversion of the nineteenth century imperialist world order, which to be certain persisted in essential features through until 1974 when the book was published and indeed continues in broad strokes until today.

Moorcock caught me off-guard. It was very clear that Bastable, with whom I felt sympathy for the overwhelming reason that he was the protagonist of the narrative, had a clear distaste for what he imagined to be the Black Attila’s project, and he voiced his distaste in terms colored by the type of garden-variety racism of middle-class white people. Without doubt, Bastable wouldn’t attend a lynching, let alone participate in one, yet he certainly wouldn’t support a Federal lynching law. I wondered, indeed was concerned, that Bastable, in a book written as the 1960’s left coalitions, to the extent that they ever really operated as coalitions, had fragmented, largely through a concerted effort by the FBI to infiltrate and otherwise discredit radical organizations, particularly black radical organizations, the Black Panther Party above all. I wondered if Moorcock had bought the bull***t about the Panthers.

I was relieved, then, to find that as the book progressed that Moorcock revealed not only that the Black Attila’s reputation among the remaining white powers of the world was a reflection of racist ideology rather than reality, but that those white powers, particularly in the course of the narrative those in North America, were themselves the barbaric forces of the world. Moorcock deserves huge credit for using the technique of alternate history to expose the historical reality of the overwhelming virulence of classical white ideology. “Classical white ideology”: if the term doesn’t yet properly exist, I’m pleased to have coined it. In any event, Moorcock is correct to show the white power structure of the United States trying to reinstate racialized slavery. There continue to be lots of white people in the United States today who wish precisely that.

It’s interesting, though, that Moorcock uses the plot device of a race war. I’ve heard lots of people talk about the idea of a race war, or as they saw it the inevitability of a race war. I’ve heard people speak of it with fear, and a few with relish. Whatever the approach, every single one of these people has been white. I have never, not once, heard a person of color talk about a “race war” except to tell the white knucklehead that such a thing was a crazy idea and that in any event were such a thing to happen, given how the past 500 years have gone down, it wasn’t white people who needed to be scared. It should be stressed here that Nat Turner’s rebellion spared poor whites. “Race war” is simply not something any people of color I have ever known want to imagine. The reality of North America–I write of where I live–is a low-intensity race war to this day, if one we can qualify in any number of different ways.

So it’s interesting that Moorcock’s imagined revolutionary-apocalypse takes the form of an inverted white imagination. Without question Moorcock knows who the villains of history are: he really does. He breaks out of that trap of classical white ideology. But he does so not by escaping it, but by inverting it, which is no escape at all.

Still, a fantastic read. Moorcock is tops, really tops.


Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder

My library’s copy.

I knew of Lenin‘s pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, long before I finally, a few weeks ago, chose to read it, largely because it has the single most fantastic title of any Marxist literature of which I’m aware. In that regard, it’s the equivalent of Mingus’ “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.”

I’ve read a moderate amount of Lenin, but by no means a ton. I haven’t even read What Is To Be Done?, for example. That said, I know enough about the Russian experience to know that, despite efforts on the right and center-left, Lenin was no Stalin, and to treat him as such does a great disservice to anyone who wants to work to make the world a better–nobody is saying “perfect,” people–place for people. You can disagree with Lenin while learning from him. There have been few people in the last few centuries who have put more thought and effort into the problems our species faces.

Why this particular pamphlet, and why now? Obama raised the issue, and particularly an ongoing discussion at Smartypants’ blog about the fissures on the left over his presidency. I am certain that when I say my politics are Marxist, lots of people on the left would dismiss me as a poseur. I’m certainly not living the revolutionary dream, going underground, organizing cells, nor partaking of any of the side benefits, like being dashing and having a series of torrid, brief affairs. I do, however, find that Marx’s readings of capitalism particularly and historical change generally hold more water than anyone else’s I’ve encountered. With this in mind, I make a point of declaring myself “Marxist” when I participate in discussions. I think we would all be better off if a Marxian read on things was part of the larger conversation.

In any event, Smartypants’ general take, as she puts it, is as “pragmatic progressive.” I would join that club. This is in contrast to a huge swath of the left that, from my vantage point, is so accustomed, during my lifetime, to not exercising influence or, better still, wielding power, that it retreats into intellectual discussions among itself, with all kinds of notions of purity, etc. Most often, the practical implications of this for most people ends up with declarations like “both parties are the same, so don’t justify them with your vote.” Neither Ms. Pants nor I think that both parties are the same, and this discussion reminded me of Lenin’s famous title.

So, Lenin, writing in 1920, at the peak of his powers both politically and intellectually–you could argue that his political high-water point was with NEP, maybe–takes young, enthusiastic Communists to task for their left deviationism. Substantively, he critiqued various Dutch, German, French, and English Communists (Sylvia Pankhurst was a target) for refusing to use legal, electoral means, in coalition with other parties, as a tool in the larger struggle, viz.:

Parliamentarianism has become “historically obsolete”. That is true in the propaganda sense. However, everybody knows that this is still a far cry from overcoming it in practice. Capitalism could have been declared—and with full justice—to be “historically obsolete” many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism. Parliamentarianism is “historically obsolete” from the standpoint of world history, i.e., the era of bourgeois parliamentarianism is over, and the era of the proletarian dictatorship has begun. That is incontestable. But world history is counted in decades. Ten or twenty years earlier or later makes no difference when measured with the yardstick of world history; from the standpoint of world history it is a trifle that cannot be considered even approximately. But for that very reason, it is a glaring theoretical error to apply the yardstick of world history to practical politics.

The money quote, to repeat it: “is a glaring theoretical error to apply the yardstick of world history to practical politics.” I suppose I went to Lenin because you can’t find a radical leftist with better radical leftist credentials. You can argue with Leninist vanguardism, but you can’t argue, as people do about Obama, that Lenin is a bourgeois toadie. When Obama says, “compromise,” some of my siblings on the left hear, “sell-out.” So, Lenin, on compromising.

Of course, in politics, where it is sometimes a matter of extremely complex relations—national and international—between classes and parties, very many cases will arise that will be much more difficult than the question of a legitimate “compromise” in a strike or a treacherous “compromise” by a strike-breaker, treacherous leader, etc. It would be absurd to formulate a recipe or general rule (“No compromises!”) to suit all cases. One must use one’s own brains and be able to find one’s bearings in each particular instance. It is, in fact, one of the functions of a party organisation and of party leaders worthy of the name, to acquire, through the prolonged, persistent, variegated and comprehensive efforts of all thinking representatives of a given class, the knowledge, experience and—in addition to knowledge and experience—the political flair necessary for the speedy and correct solution of complex political problems.

Greenwald would call him a sell-out.

By no means am I suggesting that Obama is the heir of Lenin, let alone a socialist. It’s very clear to me he is a little-“d” democrat, however, and that he made a decision a long time ago to work within the system to get things done.

Lenin, referring to Britain, very sensibly advocates work with the Labour Party against both the Liberals and Conservatives, contrary to Sylvia Pankhurst who recommended non-cooperation with Labour:

It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens [of Labour] are hopelessly reactionary. It is equally true that they want to assume power (though they would prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to “rule” along the old bourgeois lines, and that when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemanns and Noskes. All that is true. But it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution; what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support…

…[T]he fact that most British workers still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys or Scheidemanns and have not yet had experience of a government composed of these people—an experience which was necessary in Russia and Germany so as to secure the mass transition of the workers to communism—undoubtedly indicates that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone.

So, Lenin advocates working within legal, parliamentary means. Why? Because of something completely obvious, something that the US left needs to consider: the views of the actual majority of the working class are what matter, not the views of a tiny minority of quite radical leftists. In the US, the issue at stake is that huge portions of the working class identify and vote not even with Democrats, who are willing to respond to some kind of pressure (e.g., every decent piece of social legislation this country’s ever had, excepting possibly the Americans with Disabilities Act), but with the GOP, which institutionally despises them.

The second portion of Lenin’s point above, about “a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone,” is crucial, and not just for an understanding of Lenin himself. At this point the word “soviet” needs a definition for English readers. The word is simply the Russian for “council.” The soviets of the 1905 and 1917revolutions were local governing councils

St. Petersburg Soviet, 1905, including lil’ Trotsky. Practice makes perfect.

formed in the vacuum left when the state, in 1905, wavered, and in 1917 collapsed. “Soviet” means, in other words, direct, participatory democracy with a little “d.” I am well aware that this is not how the system developed in Russia, and the logistical demands of civil war are the most important reason the system didn’t. The point, however, is that Lenin came to power after Russian workers and, mutatis mutandis, peasants had had decades of experience making decisions for themselves in their local communities, centuries, you could say, if you count the mir, the Russian peasant commune.

In the US, participation is not the name of the game for most of us. Disenfranchisement and consumption are. We will not see democracy in this country until we increase the former until it’s normalized and decrease the latter until they are insignificant. It’s very clear to me, to take a painful example, that Guantanamo Bay is still open not because Obama is Bush-Cheney in sheep’s clothing, but because there was no public outcry, or rather none with sufficient weight, demanding its closure in 2009.

Lenin constantly chides the international left-wing for its failure to base its actions on the actual development of consciousness of an actual majority of real workers. Much is made in the US about the bloodiness of Bolshevik policy at its worst, so much that you might imagine that it was Stalin, not Lenin, who led the party to power in 1917. All of the damning evidence trotted out against Lenin, however, comes from the Civil War. If you want to hang Lenin for violence against civilians, so too will you have to hang Lincoln. More important for us is the fact that when the Bolsheviks actually took state power in October 1917, they did so in one of the most nearly bloodless coups d’etat the world has ever seen. Far from the huge deal we see in Eisenstein’s film,

After a single day of revolution eighteen people had been arrested and two had been killed.

Two people killed. That’s a good night in Rahm’s Chicago. How could the single most important coup d’etat yet in human history have been such a small affair? Because by the time it happened, nobody, or nearly nobody, was willing to defend the state as it existed, an overwhelming number of people wanted to dismantle it, and–this most critically–there was a replacement for the old state in the form of soviet, “council,” power, not only waiting in the wings but in actually experientially-existing form. The deal was done before it went down.

Bearing all this in mind, it’s clear at least to me that there’s a lot of work to be done in this country before we on the left demand a full, immediate transition to socialism, or a full, immediate dismantling of the security state, or full, immediate employment, etc. You can call for those things, but you’re going to be isolated very, very quickly, and you’ll only get to talk to the people who don’t need convincing. Lenin wouldn’t do that. He told you to get involved with the people you imagine you despise–because moderate leftists are worse, right?, than plutocrats–and work the daily grind of organizing labor. More importantly, you need to work to create structures in which working people get used to making decisions that count in their own lives for themselves. Ilyich wrote this.

C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution

Get to a good library, get this book, and read it.

I was at a friend’s house and by my habit was looking at his bookshelf. I grabbed Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution as well as a copy of Nkrumah’s autobiography, and he told me to take them home, on the condition that I report back to him on the quality of the books: he had bought them but not yet read them, as many bookworms will do. C.L.R. James passes the test. The book is out of print, unfortumately, so get right and get a library card, which is my new modus vivendi as I’ve noted before.

Very briefly, the edition I read was originally published in 1977, the bulk of which was published as a fairly lengthy pamphlet in (according to the copyright) 1962, while Nkrumah was still in power, with additions from the period as he was, in James’ analysis, losing his footing. James’ dedication of the text, to Nkrumah, whom he called Francis, is quite beautiful:


in never-to-be forgotten memory. Like Cromwell and Lenin, he initiated the destruction of a régime in decay — a tremendous achievement; but like them, he failed to create the new society.

James is among other things one of a tiny few of true stylists of 20th century English prose. He is most famous for The Black Jacobins for perfectly good reasons–i.e., you won’t read a better book–but, truly, should be required reading for anyone trying to get their prose in shape, myself included. He’s also one of those examples of the colonially educated who mastered the language of the oppressor to a greater extent than any of the oppressors themselves. I can’t imagine too many writers today, again including myself, who would bother using the correctly-accented “régime” rather than the lazy man’s “regime,” much less know that there is actually a difference. James, of course knows that both history and language matter, and thus could not but acknowledge the history of the word as he wrote it.

James writes against an entire literature that posits decolonization as something that Europeans did. Put so, it’s, I hope, obvious how idiotic an idea that is. I’d note, however, that there is an analogous trend in US historiography that sees the end of slavery as the work of white people (witness California History Standard 10.3.4, which places the end of the slave trade in the unit on the industrial revolution) or the Civil Rights Act as Johnson’s achievment (witness Hillary Clinton’s campaign). James begins his text with a discussion of “the Myth,” capitalized. That is, the notion that there’s no way that Black people could actually make history for themselves. His book, in addition to an analysis of revolutionary process and a very convincing defense from a Marxist perspective of non-violence, is an illustration of the truth that Black people and indeed all people make their own history, even if as Marx famously noted in the Eighteenth Brumaire that

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

In any event, James amply demonstrates that is was the mass movement in Ghana that required the British to leave. Nkrumah’s role was to understand this and give it focus. James’ dedication above places Nkrumah on par with Cromwell (interesting choice, and certainly not one expected by this US-educated reader) and Lenin, and his book absolutely justifies that assessment. Truly, Ghana’s independence movement was in fact a revolution–not a term one finds in American textbooks in this context–and Nkrumah both a theoretician and practitioner of revolution on par with a Lenin.

I have to think that the broad denial of the term “revolution” to Ghana in our textbooks is part of a general tendency of the propertied classes to erase the idea of revolutionary change from the list of possible futures we face. The materials we as teachers get to work with, textbooks and such, subtly categorize “revolutions” into two categories: the good and the bad. The “good” ones are those of anglophonic whites: those of England such as it was and the United States. Reports of revolutionary violence are minimized in textbook treatments of these subjects or dismissed as aberrations. That both merely confirmed already-existing elites rather than replaced them exposes the agenda of the textbook writers: convince young people, the ones who might actually change things, that change is at minimum not desirable, more likely not actually possible. The “bad” revolutions are portrayed as inevitable descents into bloodbaths: we see the French and Russian examples at their worst. Students who because of their decent nature–that is to say, the very people who under capitalism are most likely to want to overthrow it–would gravitate toward thoroughgoing social revolutions are instead taught to revile the very notion of revolution, because they are taught to mistake revolutionary violence with revolution itself. Ghana’s counter-example gives lie to this.

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