Cromwell, Robespierre, Stalin (and Lenin?): must revolution always mean catastrophe?,
by Bill Bowring
Leon Trotsky, reflecting on British history, wrote: ‘The ‘dictatorship of Lenin’ expresses the mighty pressure of the new historical class and its superhuman struggle against all the forces of the old society. If Lenin can be juxtaposed to anyone then it is not to Napoleon nor even less to Mussolini but to Cromwell and Robespierre. It can be with some justice said that Lenin is the proletarian twentieth-century Cromwell. Such a definition would at the same time be the highest compliment to the petty-bourgeois seventeenth-century Cromwell.’ In this response to the call for papers, I take Oliver Cromwell, Maximilien Robespierre, and Vladimir Lenin in turn. I ask whether Stalin has indeed become a “screen memory” whose dreadful image and legacy serves to besmirch the honour of the great European revolutions, in England, France and Russia, to which Trotsky referred. It is no accident, of course, that Cromwell and Robespierre have remained, since their respective deaths, controversial and even monstrous historical figures in their own countries. Would their rehabilitation, which has also recurred throughout the centuries since their own time, mean that Stalin too should be rehabilitated and recovered as a revolutionary? My answer is an unequivocal “no”.
Revolution, Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin
On 24-25 February 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev delivered his report, the “secret speech”, in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes and the ‘cult of personality’ surrounding Stalin. This was a catastrophe for much of the left worldwide, even for Trotskyists who had spent their political lives denouncing the crimes of Stalin. For the loyal members of Communist Parties all over the world who had taken the greatest political and personal risks to defend the Soviet Union and Stalin himself against all criticisms, publication of the report was truly a cataclysm. The brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Uprising, which lasted from 23 October until 10 November 1956, and in which 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops died, put an end to any remaining illusions.
Many intellectuals abandoned the communist project. Some have sought to grapple with the significance of Stalin, who, in the name of “socialism in one country”, consolidated his authoritarian rule over a reconstituted and enlarged Russian empire. Alain Badiou, perhaps the most significant living intellectual seeking to reinvigorate the idea of communism, has argued that Stalinism substituted “great referential collectives” – Working Class, Party, Socialist Camp – for “those real political processes of which Lenin was the pre-eminent thinker.” But he recognises that for many “… the only category capable of reckoning with the century’s unity is that of crime: the crimes of Stalinist communism and the crimes of Nazism.” I will have more to say about Lenin later in this paper.
Slavoj Žižek, who has often been accused of crypto-Stalinism, wrote:
It’s appropriate, then, to recognise the tragedy of the October Revolution: both its unique emancipatory potential and the historical necessity of its Stalinist outcome. We should have the honesty to acknowledge that the Stalinist purges were in a way more ‘irrational’ than the Fascist violence: its excess is an unmistakable sign that, in contrast to Fascism, Stalinism was a case of an authentic revolution perverted.
In this passage Žižek echoes Trotsky, for whom Stalin was the “personification of the bureaucracy”, the betrayer of the revolution, although Trotsky would never have subscribed to the idea of the historical necessity of the Russian Thermidor.
Trotsky was clear as to Lenin’s antecedents, in a way which has in part inspired the writing of this article, and also expressed an admiration for Cromwell, which would not have occurred to Marx or Engels, for whom Cromwell was, as I will explore later in this article, the petit-bourgeois leader who suppressed the radical Levellers movements and butchered the Irish. Trotsky, reflecting on British history, wrote:
The ‘dictatorship of Lenin’ expresses the mighty pressure of the new historical class and its superhuman struggle against all the forces of the old society. If Lenin can be juxtaposed to anyone then it is not to Napoleon nor even less to Mussolini but to Cromwell and Robespierre. It can be with some justice said that Lenin is the proletarian twentieth-century Cromwell. Such a definition would at the same time be the highest compliment to the petty-bourgeois seventeenth-century Cromwell.
This article therefore asks whether Stalin has indeed become a “screen memory” whose dreadful image and legacy serves to besmirch the honour of the great European revolutions, in England, France and Russia, to which Trotsky referred. It is no accident, of course, that Cromwell and Robespierre have remained, since their respective deaths, controversial and even monstrous historical figures in their own countries. Would their rehabilitation, which has also recurred throughout the centuries since their own time, mean that Stalin too should be rehabilitated and recovered as a revolutionary? My answer is an unequivocal “no”.
Of course, as Slavoj Žižek reminds us, Stalin is indeed being rehabilitated in contemporary Russia, but not at all as a revolutionary, but as an authentic Tsar, precisely what Lenin at the end of his life warned against.
Stalin was returning to pre-Revolutionary tsarist policy: Russia’s colonisation of Siberia in the 17th century and Muslim Asia in the 19th was no longer condemned as imperialist expansion, but celebrated for setting these traditional societies on the path of progressive modernisation. Putin’s foreign policy is a clear continuation of the tsarist-Stalinist line.
No wonder Stalin’s portraits are on show again at military parades and public celebrations, while Lenin has been obliterated. In an opinion poll carried out in 2008 by the Rossiya TV station, Stalin was voted the third greatest Russian of all time, with half a million votes. Lenin came in a distant sixth. Stalin is celebrated not as a Communist but as a restorer of Russian greatness after Lenin’s anti-patriotic ‘deviation’.
And indeed, on 21 January 2016, President Putin told the Russian Council on Science and Education that Lenin was an ‘atomic bomb’ placed under the foundations of the Russian state. Such denunciations of Lenin are now becoming a significant ideological marker for the Kremlin and its supporters. On 3 February 2016 General (retired) Leonid Reshetnikov of the SVR, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, and now Director of the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI), a think-tank for the SVR, applauded Putin’s words, and blamed Lenin also for the creation of Ukraine and its zombified anti-Russian population now controlled by the USA. Perhaps we can now expect the pulling down of the many statues of Lenin in Russia. Lenin, who would have detested such political idolatry, would be delighted at such an action, just as he would have preferred to be buried next to his mother rather than embalmed as a sacred icon in Red Square.
As to Stalin, in a press conference on 19 December 2013, Putin said, when asked whether statues of Stalin and Dzerzhinsky should be restored in front of the FSB’s Lubianka headquarters:
What in particular distinguishes Cromwell from Stalin? Can you tell me? Nothing whatsoever. From the point of view of our liberal representatives, the liberal spectrum of our political establishment, he is also a bloody dictator. And this very bloody man, one must say, played a role in the history of Great Britain which is subject to differing interpretations. His monument still stands, and no-one has cut him down.
In the following section of this article I will turn to the figure of Cromwell, and to his “screen memory” as it functions in England.
A leading representative of contemporary Russian liberal thought, Andrei Medushevskii, has stated, taking me one step ahead to the next section of this article, which turns to Robespierre:
The most characteristic attributes of totalitarian states of recent times are everywhere the presence of a single mass party, usually headed by a charismatic leader; an official ideology; state control over the economy, the mass media, and the means of armed struggle; and a system of terrorist police control. Classic examples of totalitarian states possessing all of these attributes are Hitler’s Germany, the USSR in the Stalin period, and Maoist China.
And he was clear that the roots of this phenomenon were to be found in Rousseau:
When Robespierre created the cult of the supreme being, he was consequently only acting as the true pupil and follower of Rousseau and at the same time as a predecessor of those many ideological and political cults with which the twentieth century has proved to be so replete.
Of course, Medushevsky necessarily referred to the ardent follower of Rousseau, Maximilen Robespierre.
In this response to the call for papers, I will take Oliver Cromwell, Maximilien Robespierre, and Vladimir Lenin in turn, before returning to the questions posed in this Introduction. The approach I adopt is not that of a professional historian or even of a historian of ideas. I want to bring out some of the ways in which reflection on the destinies of the “screen memories” of each of these historical figures can help us to come to terms with the significance of “Stalin” for contemporary politics.
Christopher Hill has done more than any other historian to explore the minute detail and to defend the actuality and honour of the English Revolution – and a revolution it certainly was, bourgeois or not. England was utterly changed. The English constitutional model to this day, parliamentary supremacy, is the direct consequence of Cromwell’s execution of Charles I in 1649. What is certain also is that as a result of the victories of Cromwell’s New Model Army, his Ironsides, England could not follow France in the direction of an Absolute Monarchy.
Historians have given us many Cromwells, created if not after their own image at least as a vehicle for their own prejudices… But there is a validity in the image of Cromwell blowing up the strongholds of the king, the aristocracy and the church: that, after all, is what the Revolution had achieved.
That is precisely why Cromwell has remained an enduring point of sharp division in England, with educated people to this day identifying as Roundheads or Cavaliers, Parliamentarians or Royalists. The ‘Sealed Knot’ is the oldest re-enactment society in the UK, and the single biggest re-enactment society in Europe. To join and to refight the battles of the English revolution, you must identify as a Cavalier or a Roundhead, and there is no shortage of Roundheads.
I must declare a family interest in this matter. Hill describes the fact that in the early 18th century Whigs had portraits of Cromwell, and “so did John Bowring, a radical fuller of Exeter, grandfather of the biographer of Jeremy Bentham”. This biographer and Bentham’s literary executor and editor of the first edition of his works, also named John Bowring, my ancestor, wrote
My grandfather was a man of strong political feeling, being deemed no better in those days than a Jacobin by politicians and a heretic by churchmen. The truth is that the old Puritan blood, inherited from a long line of ancestors, flowed strongly in his veins, and a traditional reverence for the Commonwealth was evidenced by a fine mezzotint print of Oliver Cromwell, which hung in his parlour. He took a strong part with the Americans in their war of independence, was hustled by the illiberal Tories of the day, and was, I have heard, burnt in effigy in the cathedral yard at the time of the Birmingham riots, when Dr Priestley was compelled to flee his native land. Many prisoners from America were, at the time of our hostilities, confined at Exeter, and my grandfather was much persecuted for the attentions he showed them, and for his attempts to alleviate their sufferings. When John Adams was in England, he, with his wife (who, by the way, was a connection of our family), visited my grandfather at Exeter as a mark of his respect and regard.
To keep up the family tradition, I have a portrait of Cromwell, warts and all, in my study. The sentiments of those who hang portraits of Stalin in their homes are quite different, as I have shown.
As Vladimir Putin correctly noted, in the quotation above, Oliver Cromwell’s statue still stands, sword in hand, a lion at his feet, outside the House of Commons in Westminster. This is a relatively recent, and very controversial monument. It was erected in 1899, but only following a narrow victory for the government on 14 June 1895, saved by Unionist votes. All the 45 Irish Nationalists present voted against, as did most Conservatives including Balfour. On 17 June 1895 the Nationalist, Home Rule, MP Willie Redmond declared that every newspaper in Ireland, of all shades of opinion, had condemned the proposal, and that erection of the statue would give great offence to a large portion of the community. The proposal was withdrawn the next month, and the statue was finally erected in 1899, following a personal donation by Lord Rosebery, the Liberal statesman and Prime Minister in 1894-5.
The statute has not ceased to be an object of intense debate. In May 2004 a group of MPs including Tony Banks proposed removing the statue to the “Butcher of Drogheda”.
Indeed, many on the left in Britain remember Cromwell as the conservative leader who, shortly after the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649, arrested in a lightning night attack and executed, in the town of Burford on 17 May 1649, three leaders of the radical republican Levellers: Private Church, Corporal Perkins and Cornett Thompson. Every year since 1975 Levellers Day has been held in Burford, and in 1979 Tony Benn unveiled a plaque at the church there to commemorate them. He said of the Levellers:
Their cry was Power to the People; they demanded free schools and hospitals for all – 350 years ago. They were the Levellers, and, despite attempts to airbrush them from history, they are an inspiration, especially in the current election.”
In Ireland Cromwell is remembered with horror and disgust as the “Butcher of Drogheda”, responsible for the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford in September and October 1649. After his troops had killed more than 3,500 at the siege of Drogheda, Cromwell declared, in his characteristic mangled English, in his report to Parliament on 17 September 1649:
I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.”
The Irish have by no means forgiven Cromwell not only for his shedding of so much blood, but also for his characterisation of them as ‘barbarous wretches’.
Cromwell remained in the historical shadows, England’s brief republican history before the Restoration and the ‘Glorious Revolution’, a disgraceful episode better to be forgotten. As Christopher Hill noted, it was Thomas Carlyle’s Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell which “finally allowed Cromwell to speak for himself”. Carlyle’s argument was with the Scottish Enlightenment 18th century sceptic David Hume and others for whom Cromwell was an insincere hypocrite, ambitious for himself.
For the romantic reactionary Carlyle, Cromwell was precisely the Hero needed to save 19th century England from Chartism, the franchise and extended democracy, and other socialist evils. Cromwell was selected as an example of “The Hero as King” in Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History.
Carlyle was at any rate clear as to the significance of the English Revolution, and wrote, remembering England’s characteristic history of internal strife in a way which is forgotten by those who seek to highlight England’s essential decency and peaceableness, ‘British values’:
We have had many civil-wars in England; wars of Red and White Roses, wars of Simon de Montfort; wars enough, which are not very memorable. But that war of the Puritans has a significance which belongs to no one of the others… One Puritan, I think, and almost he alone, our poor Cromwell, seems to hang yet on the gibbet, and find no hearty apologist anywhere.
It is not hard to understand why Cromwell so appealed to Trotsky, the organiser of the Red army in Russia’s Civil War, even if Cromwell was hardly mentioned except with distaste by Marx and Engels. Carlyle recognised the revolutionary nature of the New Model Army.
Cromwell’s Ironsides were the embodiment of this insight of his; men fearing God; and without any other fear. No more conclusively genuine set of fighters ever trod the soil of England, or of any other land.
Without the religion, this is no doubt what Trotsky thought of the Red Army he created in the Russian Civil War.
And in the Introduction to the Letters and Speeches Carlyle stated, in a language which prefigures Badiou’s emphasis on truth:
And then farther, altogether contrary to the popular fancy, it becomes apparent that this Oliver was not man of falsehoods, but man of truths whose words do carry meaning with them, and above all others of that time, are worth considering.
And finally, Carlyle understood, as only perhaps a romantic reactionary could, the nature of the continuing revolution in Europe:
Precisely a century and a year after this of Puritanism had got itself hushed up into decent composure, and its results made smooth, in 1688, there broke out a far deeper explosion, much more difficult to hush up, known to all mortals, and like to be long known, by the name of French Revolution.
Scott Dransfield cites Carlyle in even more rhapsodic vein, replete with arcane phraseology and many Germanic capital letters:
Very frightful it is when a Nation, rending asunder its Constitutions and Regulations which were grown dead cerements for it, becomes transcendental; and must now seek its wild way through the New, Chaotic – where Force is not yet distinguished into Bidden and Forbidden, but Crime and Virtue welter unseparated, – in that domain of what is called the Passions.
Crime and virtue are indissolubly linked to the name of Maximilien Robespierre, to whom I turn next.
Hegel devoted a section of his 1807 (written soon after the Terror) Phenomenology of Spirit to a reflection on the French Revolution, entitled ‘Absolute freedom and terror”. This contains two very disturbing passages (Hegel’s italics):
Universal freedom, therefore, can produce neither a positive work nor a deed; there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the fury of destruction.
The sole work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death, a death too which has no inner significance or filling, for what is negated is the empty point of the absolutely free self. It is thus the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water.
Hegel, the absolute idealist, frequently used very concrete examples!
However, some decades later, in his lectures on the philosophy of history, Hegel recovered the revolutionary enthusiasm he had shared while at the Tübinger Stift from 1788-1793 with his fellow students, the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, and the philosopher-to-be Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, and declared:
It has been said that the French revolution resulted from philosophy, and it is not without reason that philosophy has been called Weltweisheit [world wisdom]; for it is not only truth in and for itself, as the pure essence of things, but also truth in its living form as exhibited in the affairs of the world. We should not, therefore, contradict the assertion that the revolution received its first impulse from philosophy… This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking being shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at that time; a spiritual enthusiasm thrilled through the world, as if the reconciliation between the divine and the secular was now first accomplished.
But Hegel’s enthusiasm was not characteristic of the majority of conservative (if Hegel was indeed a conservative) and mainstream thought.
In a pithy and accurate remark, Slavoj Žižek wrote
The identifying mark of all kinds of conservatives is its flat rejection: the French revolution was a catastrophe from its very beginning, the product of a godless modern mind; it is to be interpreted as God’s punishment of the humanity’s wicked ways, so its traces should be undone as thoroughly as possible… In short, what the liberals want is a decaffeinated revolution, a revolution that doesn’t smell of revolution.
Indeed, for perhaps the majority of commentators, Robespierre epitomises all that is catastrophic in the revolution, and acts as a potent “screen memory” almost to the extent that Stalin is taken to show that any attempt to change the course of history in the name of socialism or emancipation must end in disaster.
A leading exponent of this school of thought was François Furet, who died in 1997. He led the rejection of the “classic” or “Marxist” interpretation of the French Revolution, and his polemics overshadowed the grandiose celebrations in France of the bicentenary of the Revolution in 1989. He joined the intellectual mainstream by proceedings from the perspective of 20th century totalitarianism, as exemplified by Hitler and Stalin.
This path had been blazed at the onset of the Cold War, by Hannah Arendt’s in her On Totalitarianism of 1950. However, in a footnote, Arendt wrote
Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: A Political Biography. (New York and London, 1949), is indispensable for its rich documentary and great insight into the internal struggles of the Bolshevik party; it suffers from an interpretation which likens Stalin to—Cromwell, Napoleon, and Robespierre.
It is a great shame that it is not now possible to ask her exactly what she meant.
Furet’s Penser la Révolution Française (1978; translated as Interpreting the French Revolution) led many intellectuals in France and, after translation, in the English-speaking world, to re-evaluate Communism and the Revolution as inherently totalitarian and anti-democratic.
In a reflection on Furet, Donald Reid has asked whether the historical figure of Robespierre had actually become harmless:
If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.
As explained by Reid, Furet was not at all of that view. For him Robespierre remained a continuing dreadful threat not only to France but to the whole world, a threat of the eternal return of totalitarianism:
Furet, like Tocqueville, saw the American and French revolutions as quite distinct. The American Revolution was predicated on the demand for the restoration of rights and the continuation of an earlier democratic experience; the decision to emigrate from Europe to the United States had been Americans’ revolutionary rejection of a repressive past. The French Revolution sought to establish a radical break with an aristocratic past and to create a novel social regime. The American Revolution was a narrative that ended with independence and the ratification of the Constitution; the French revolutionary narrative remained open to the future and fearful of a return of the past.
A number of French historians led by Sophie Wahnich of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) are leading a counter-attack against Furet. In her introduction to her 2003 La Liberté ou la mort: Essai sur la Terreur et le terrorisme, provocatively if inaccurately translated as In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution, Wahnich wrote, referring to Furet and to Marc Fumaroli’s 2001 Cahiers de Cinéma article ‘Terreur et cinéma’:
We see here the conscious construction of a new reception of the French Revolution which, out of disgust at the political crimes of the twentieth century, imposes an equal disgust towards the revolutionary event. The French Revolution is unspeakable because it constituted ‘the matrix of totalitarianism’ and invented its rhetoric.
A splendid chapter in Wahnich’s recent collection is written by Joléne Bureau, who is researching the ‘black legend’ of Robespierre, constructed by the Thermidoreans immediately after Robespierre’s execution, and its destiny since his death. She writes elsewhere in English:
Maximilien Robespierre has reached legendary status due to his ability to embody either the many forms of revolutionary and State violence, or a set of seemingly unaccomplished revolutionary ideals. Long before François Furet demanded the French Revolution become a “cold object”, Marc Bloch had made the following plea: “robespierristes, anti-robespierristes, nous vous crions grâce : par pitié, dites-nous, simplement, quel fut Robespierre”. However, this demand was not met.
Cette légende noire agit comme un filter qui bloque notre accès au Robespierre historique.
Robespierre therefore shares Christopher Hill’s characterisation of Cromwell referred to above. Minchul Kim has recently added:
… from 1794 up to the present day, there has been no one Robespierre, no one positive or one negative view of Robespierre, no one Robespierre the demonic dictator or one Robespierre the revolutionary hero. There have always been so many ‘Robespierres’ even within the positive and within the negative…
The most controversial aspect of Robespierre’s career is of course the so-called ‘Reign of Terror’ from 5 September 1793, to 27 July 1794, culminating in the execution of Robespierre himself on 28 July 1794.
Robespierre explained what he meant by terror, and its relationship to virtue, in his speech of 5 February 1794:
If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the mainspring of popular government in revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is disastrous; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a specific principle as a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our homeland’s most pressing needs.
The novelist Hilary Mantel, who entered into the period imaginatively in her famous novel A Place of Greater Safety (1992), has provided a convincing account of the real meaning of ‘virtue’ for Robespierre:
There is a problem with the English word ‘virtue’. It sounds pallid and Catholic. But vertu is not smugness or piety. It is strength, integrity and purity of intent. It assumes the benevolence of human nature towards itself. It is an active force that puts the public good before private interest.
In any event, there are many myths as to the nature of the Terror and the number of casualties. Marisa Linton, the author of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution and of many other works on the period, recently published a popular blog to set the record straight. On the Terror she wrote:
The revolutionaries of 1789 did not foresee the recourse to violence to defend the Revolution and some, like Robespierre in 1791, wanted the death penalty abolished altogether. Execution by guillotine began with the execution of the king in January 1793. A total of 2,639 people were guillotined in Paris, most of them over nine months between autumn 1793 and summer 1794. Many more people (up to 50,000) were shot, or died of sickness in the prisons. An estimated 250,000 died in the civil war that broke out in Vendée in March 1793, which originated in popular opposition to conscription into the armies to fight against the foreign powers. Most of the casualties there were peasants or republican soldiers.
It is evident that Robespierre cannot be compared with Stalin.
And as to Robespierre himself, in particular the allegation that, like Stalin, he was a bloody dictator, Linton commented:
Robespierre’s time in power lasted just one year, from July 1793 to his death in July 1794 in the coup of Thermidor and even in that time he was never a dictator. He shared that power as one of twelve members of the Committee of Public Safety, its members elected by the Convention, which led the revolutionary government. He defended the recourse to terror, but he certainly didn’t invent it.
And Eric Hazan, in his recently published in English A People’s History of the French Revolution, is even more a partisan of Robespierre:
Under the Constituent Assembly… Robespierre took up positions that were remarkably coherent and courageous – positions in which he was always in a minority and sometimes completely alone: against the property restriction on suffrage, for the civil rights of actors and Jews, against martial law, against slavery in the colonies, against the death penalty, for the right of petition and the freedom of the press.
And as to Robespierre as dictator, Hazan added:
… Robespierre was never a dictator. All the major decisions of the Committee of Public Safety were taken collectively… One could say that within the Committee Robespierre exercised a moral leadership, but can he be reproached for what was simply his elevated perspective? The proof that Robespierre was not a dictator is his end… Isolated and at bay, he let himself be brought down… A dictator, a Bonaparte, would have behaved rather differently.
Stalin died in his bed, having executed all his political competitors and enemies, and having directly caused the deaths of untold millions of Russians and Ukrainians through his policy of forced collectivisation, and having consigned many more to the horrors of the Gulag.
Perhaps we should give Slavoj Žižek the last word as to Robespierre’s ideology:
Can one imagine something more foreign to our universe of the freedom of opinions, or market competition, of nomadic pluralist interaction, etc, than Robespierre’s politics of Truth (with a capital T, of course), whose proclaimed goal is ‘to return the destiny of liberty into the hands of truth’?
It is my contention that Stalin was in no way Lenin’s successor. If Vladimir Putin now regards Lenin as anathema, as the ideologist who through his insistence on the right of nations to self-determination laid an atomic bomb under the foundations of the Russian state, Stalin is honoured as a great heir to the Russian tsars. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 mirrors Catherine II’s annexation in 1783. Lenin would have been horrified. Equally, Lenin was very well aware of the history of the French Revolution.
Alistair Wright speculates as follows in his highly relevant article, ‘Guns and Guillotines: State Terror in the Russian and French Revolutions’ – I hope I will be forgiven for quoting from it at some length:
The impression that the French Revolution and in particular the Jacobin Terror left on the Bolshevik party during its seizure and consolidation of power is a broad and contentious subject. However, there can be little doubt that the party’s leading figures, namely Lenin and Trotsky, were acutely aware of these precedents from French history. Indeed, this may well have been significant in shaping their policies during and after 1917. Admittedly there is more controversy surrounding the depth of Lenin’s knowledge of the French Revolution but the same cannot be said for Leon Trotsky. It is fairly evident that the latter was steeped in the history of the French Revolution. He regularly looked at the Bolshevik Revolution through the prism of the French and was even keen to stage an extravagant trial for Nicholas II in the manner of that arranged for Louis XVI between November 1792 and January 1793.
Stalin, although a voracious reader, did not have the multilingual and cosmopolitan intellectual formation of Lenin or Trotsky, and in particular did not suffer their prolonged periods of exile in Western Europe, and there is no reason to believe that he shared their anxious consideration of historical precedents. Wright continues:
Some consideration of the fact that Robespierre became strongly associated at the time and subsequently with the Great Terror during the French Revolution, regardless of whether or not he should really be held personally accountable for it, may well have influenced Lenin’s course of action.
In fact, the Bolsheviks succeeded in the longer term because they consciously learnt from the mistakes made by their French counterparts. Consequently, during the Russian Civil War a different path was taken to that followed by the Jacobins when it came to tackling the Bolsheviks’ political opponents, the established church and peasant disturbances.
As Wright shows, it was not only in his approach to the national question that Lenin’s political strategy and methods differed sharply from Stalin’s, but in his relations with comrades with whom he often had acute disagreements, denouncing them in his fierce and often very rude polemics.
… it is noteworthy that the Bolsheviks’ approach to the threat posed by their political opponents was somewhat more tolerant than that of the Committee of Public Safety during 1793–94. The latter, albeit after a number of heated disputes and resistance, sent their main political opponents, the Girondins, to the guillotine, where they were shortly to be followed by the Hébertistes and the Indulgents. In comparison, relative tolerance on the part of the Bolsheviks was evident both in their sharing of power with the Left Socialists-Revolutionaries (Left SRs) up until March 1918 and in their limited co-operation with their other socialist rivals, the Mensheviks and the Socialists-Revolutionaries proper, by allowing them, intermittently, to take part in the soviets and to print their own newspapers.
Admittedly, the number of political opponents actually killed during the period of the CPS was by no means comprehensive but the fact remains that no prominent opposition leader would die as a result of the Red Terror. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that any political executions were planned. Even at the 1922 trial of the SR leaders, although several defendants were sentenced to death they were quickly granted amnesty and no one was actually executed. In part this was because of the pressure applied by Western socialists but nevertheless the Bolsheviks could quite easily neutralize their political rivals during the civil war by other means.
In my view, Lenin’s restraint in relation to political opponents had nothing to do with pressure by Western socialists, but on the contrary flowed from his political outlook, his theoretical understanding, and his commitment to the application of a dialectical method, fortified by his deep study not only of Marx and Engels but also of Hegel. Stalin, on the contrary, once he had accumulated full power in his hands, began systematically to eliminate the Bolshevik leadership as it had been constituted at the time of the Revolution.
Vladimir Dobrenko adds as to the Moscow Trials, orchestrated by Stalin:
… why should the Moscow Show Trials warrant a separate investigation from other show trials throughout history? The answer to this lies in the fact that while the Moscow Show Trials share common links with other political trials, chiefly that of the ruling regime willingness to use their adversaries in a judicial context to legitimise their own rule, they are distinguished in several crucial respects. The Trial of Louis XVI is a case in point. All the leading Bolsheviks were conscious of the historical parallel between their revolution and that of the French Revolution, most notably Trotsky, whose critiques of Stalin in the 1930’s drew historical parallels between Stalin and Robespierre. Yet in retrospect, Trotsky only scratched the surface. True, the Moscow Show Trials, like the trial of Louis of XVI, were less a judicial process rather than foregone political decisions to kill and that the trials resembled ritual murders.
Wright adds, reinforcing his earlier comments:
Executing factions within the Bolshevik Party was, of course, an eminent feature of Stalin’s Great Terror during the late 1930s. But, it is worth stressing that Lenin and his followers did not resort to terror against any Bolshevik dissidents during the civil war, despite the existence of such groupings as the Democratic Centralists and the Workers’ Opposition. Of course, the Bolsheviks did move towards disabling their political rivals but certainly not through the same process of open executions as their French counterparts had done.
Wright’s highly apposite conclusion is as follows, comparing Robespierre’s role to that of Lenin:
Although Robespierre came to be regarded as the leading spokesman for the Committee, he was in an entirely different position to that held by Lenin as the leader of the Bolshevik government. By no means did he possess the same popular following within the CPS or the Convention, nor did he have anything like the same influence as Lenin did within the Bolshevik Party. In this respect, the political climate in France during the revolution and the Terror was quite different to that pervading Russia during the civil war.
The Bolsheviks also showed relative clemency when it came to dealing with the leading figures of the political opposition. Often, this was perhaps due to the personal role of Lenin. For example, Victor Serge (V.L. Kibalchich), the Belgian-born anarchist and socialist who worked with the Bolsheviks during the civil war, believed that Lenin protected Iurii Martov from the Cheka (that is, from execution) because of his former friendship with the man with whom he had part founded and developed Russian Social Democracy. Moreover, Lenin would also intervene to save the lives of the Mensheviks Fedor Dan and Raphael Abramovich when the Petrograd Cheka was preparing to shoot them for allegedly being involved in the Kronstadt revolt in March 1921. Serge noted that ‘once Lenin was alerted they were absolutely safe’. Although a great advocate of the use of mass terror, Lenin was apparently willing to show mercy when it came to the case of individuals with whom he was acquainted or simply individuals in general.
Trotsky himself wrote, with hindsight, as to the bloody revenge of the Thermidors of France and of Russia:
The Jacobins were not destroyed as Jacobins but as Terrorists, as Robespierrists, and the like: similarly, the Bolsheviks were destroyed as Trotskyists, Zinovienists, Bukharinists.
The Thermidoreans systematically exterminated the Jacobins; Stalin annihilated the leaders of the Bolshevik Party, and, while cynically taking their name and elevating Lenin to sacred status, ensure that none of the Old Bolsheviks apart from his cronies survived.
It is my contention, as explained at greater length in my 2008 book, that the English, French and Russian Revolutions were most certainly Events in the sense given to that word by Alain Badiou. That is, Events which have, in each case, dramatically changed the course of human events in the world. As Badiou would put it, these are Events to which fidelity should be and was owed by millions. Indeed, these were Events which now call upon the human participants in the politics of the present day to honour their decisive and explosive shattering of the hitherto prevailing situation, while at the same time exploring and taking full account of their human tragedy. Just as in the case of St Paul and the universalisation of Christianity, so lucidly explained by Alain Badiou, great human figures stand out in each case, the subjects of this study: Cromwell, Robespierre and Lenin. There is no need to subscribe to Carlyle’s acclamation for Heroes in order to explain why in each case precisely these particular individuals rose to the occasion, through long individual experience of internal turmoil, as in the case of Cromwell, lack of charisma as in the case of Robespierre, and on occasion complete isolation, as in the case of Lenin in April 1917, when he stood alone against his Party. In each case the individual has indeed become a “screen memory” for conservatives and reactionaries, dreadful examples used to prove that all revolutions are necessarily disasters.
What is perfectly clear is that neither Cromwell, nor Robespierre, nor Lenin, could become an icon or avatar for the reactionary and historically outmoded regimes they helped to overthrow. Stalin had none of the personal characteristics of the three leaders examined in this article. He was a revolutionary, and a leader of the Bolshevik Party. But his trajectory was to destroy utterly that which he had helped to create. That is why the present Russian regime seeks to elevate him to the status of the murderous Tsars of Russian history.
Arendt, Hannah, 1973, The Origins of Totalitarianism, London: John Harcourt
Badiou, Alain, 2003, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Stanford: Stanford University Press
— – — 2006, Polemics,London, Verso
— – — 2007, The Century, London: Polity Press
Bowring, Bill, 2008, The Degradation of the International Legal Order? The Rehabilitation of Law and the Possibility of Politics, Abingdon: Routledge
Bowring, John, 1877, Autobiographical Recollections of Sir John Bowring (London, Henry S. King), downloadable at https://archive.org/details/autobiographical00bowruoft (accessed on 9 February 2016)
Bureau, Jolène, 2013, ‘Aux origins de la légende noire de Robespierre: les premiers récits sur l’événement-Thermidor’ in Sophie, Wahnich (ed), 2013, Histoire D’Un Trésor Perdu: Transmettre La Révolution Française (Paris, Les Prairies Ordinaires), pp.91-128
Carlyle, Thomas, 1841, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, London, James Fraser, Lecture VI, 22 May 1840, ‘The Hero as King’, p.316
— – — 1850, Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell in three volumes, London: Chapman and Hall
Dobrenko, Vladimir, 2010, ‘Constructing the Enemy: Stalin’s Political Imagination and the Great Terror’, Russian Journal of Communication, v.3 n.1-2, pp.72-96,
Dransfield, Scott, 1999, ‘History, hysteria, and the revolutionary subject in Thomas Carlyle’s French revolution’, v.22 n.3 Prose Studies, pp.57-78,
Furet, François, 1981, Interpreting the French Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
— – — 1996, The French Revolution 1770-1814, London: John Wiley and Son
— – — 2000, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea Of Communism In The Twentieth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Hazan, Eric, 2014, A Peoples History of the French Revolution, London: Verso
Hegel, G. W. F., 1977, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller, Oxford: Oxfort University Press
— – –1980, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hill, Christopher ,1970, God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution, Harmondsworth: Pelican
Kim, Minchul, 2015, ‘The many Robespierres from 1794 to the present’, History of European Ideas, v.41, n.7, pp. 992-996
Linton, Marisa, 2013, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford, OUP)
— – — 2015, ‘The Choices of Maximilien Robespierre’ v.7, n.14 # 3 H-France Salon, pp.1-10
— – — 2015 a, ‘Ten myths about the French Revolution’ OUPblog 26 July 2015 at http://blog.oup.com/2015/07/ten-myths-french-revolution/ (accessed on 9 February 2016)
Mantel, Hilary, 2000, ‘What a man this is, with his crowd of women around him!’ review of Robespierre by Colin Haydon and William Doyle (eds) Cambridge University Press, 1999, v.22 n.7 London Review of Books pp.3-8 at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n07/hilary-mantel/what-a-man-this-is-with-his-crowd-of-women-around-him
Medushevskii, A. N., 1994, ‘Democracy and Tyranny in Modern and Recent Times’, Russian Studies in Philosophy, v.33, n3, pp. 62-96
— – –1995, ‘Democracy and Tyranny in Modern and Recent Times’, Russian Social Science Review, v.36 n.2, pp. 3-37
Patrikeeff, Felix, 2003, ‘Stalinism, totalitarian society and the politics of ‘perfect control’’, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, v.4, n.1, pp. 23-46
Reid, Donald, 2005, ‘François Furet and the future of a disillusionment’, The European Legacy, v.10, n.2, pp. 193-216
Robespierre, Maximilien (2007) “On the principles of political morality that should guide the National Convention in the domestic administration of the Republic”, 5 February 1794, in Žižek, Slavoj, 2007, Slavoj Žižek presents Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, London: Verso, pp. 108-125
Stambler, Ilia, 2006, ‘Heroic Power in Thomas Carlyle and Leo Tolstoy’, The European Legacy, v.11, n.7, pp. 737-751
Trotsky, Leon, 1969, Stalin, Volume 2, The Revolutionary in Power, London: Panther
— – — 1974, Writings on Britain Vol 2, London: New Park
Wahnich, Sophie, 2012, In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution, London: Verso
— – — (ed), 2013, Histoire D’Un Trésor Perdu: Transmettre La Révolution Française, Paris: Les Prairies Ordinaires
Wright, Alistair, 2007, ‘Guns and Guillotines: State Terror in the Russian and French Revolutions’ Revolutionary Russia, v.20, n.2, pp. 173-195
Žižek, Slavoj, 2005, ‘The Two Totalitarianisms’ v.27 n.6 London Review of Books p. 8, at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n06/slavoj-zizek/the-two-totalitarianisms
— – — 2007, Slavoj Žižek presents Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, London: Verso
— – — 2007, Slavoj Žižek presents Trotsky: Terrorism and Communism, London: Verso
— – — 2011, Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917 (2nd ed), London: Verso
Žižek, Slavoj, 2014, ‘Barbarism with a Human Face’ v.36 n.9 London Review of Books pp.36.37, at http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n09/slavoj-zizek/barbarism-with-a-human-face
 https://www.marxists.org/archive/khrushchev/1956/02/24.htm (accessed on 8 February 2016)
 Badiou 2007, pp. 102-3
 Badiou 2007, p.2
 Žižek, 2005
 Trotsky 1974, pp.86-7
 See https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/dec/testamnt/autonomy.htm (accessed on 12 February 2016)
 Žižek 2014
 “Захоронение дела Ленина: Апофеозом встречи с учеными стала идея Владимира Путина о том, что Владимир Ленин — это разорвавшаяся атомная бомба” Kommersant at http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2897527 (accessed on 8 February 2016), and “Vladimir Putin accuses Lenin of placing a ‘time bomb’ under Russia: Russian president blames revolutionary’s federalism for break up of Soviet Union and creating ethnic tension in region”, The Guardian 25 January 2016, at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/25/vladmir-putin-accuses-lenin-of-placing-a-time-bomb-under-russia (accessed on 8 February 2016)
 See also Paul Goble ‘Russian Think Tank That Pushed for Invasion of Ukraine Wants Moscow to Overthrow Lukashenka’ at http://www.jamestown.org/regions/russia/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=43458&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=48&cHash=271db31b04e7a79825d85178132b9a8a#.Vr2vxfIrLIU (accessed on 12 January 2016)
 http://www.aif.ru/politics/world/leonid_reshetnikov_ssha_visyat_na_voloske (accessed on 12 February 2016)
 Stenogram in the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta at http://www.rg.ru/2013/12/19/putin-site.html; and Ian Johnston “Stalin was no worse than Oliver Cromwell. The Russian President made the comments at a press conference after he was asked about a monument to Stalin being put up in Moscow” The Independent 20 December 2013 at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vladimir-putin-soviet-leader-joseph-stalin-was-no-worse-than-oliver-cromwell-9016836.html (both accessed on 8 February 2016)
 Medushevskii 1994, p.72
 Medushevskii 1994, p.78
 Hill 1970, pp. 257 and 262
 Hill 1970, p. 263
 The statue was designed by Hamo Thornycroft and erected in 1899
 “Political Notes”. The Times (34604). 15 June 1895. p. 9.
 “House of Commons”. The Times (34606). 18 June 1895. p. 6
 Hill 1970, p.105
 Tony Benn ‘Set my People Free’ The Guardian 13 May 2001, at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/may/13/election2001.uk10 (accessed on 9 February 2001)
 Letter 160 ‘For the Honourable William Lenthall, Esquire, Speaker of the Parliament of
England: These.’ Dublin, 17th September, 1649. in Vol 2, Carlyle 1850, p.128
 Hill 1970, p.258
 Carlyle 1850
 Carlyle 1841
 Carlyle 1841, pp. 335, 337
 Carlyle 1841, p.347
 Carlyle 1850, p.20
 Carlyle 1841, p. 382
 Dransfield 1999, p.62, citing from Carlyle, Works 4:2
 Hegel 1977, pp.355-363
 Hegel 1997, p.359
 Hegel 1997, p.360
 Hegel 1980, p.263
 Zizek 2007, p.vii
 Furet 1981, 1996, 2000
 See Arendt 1973
 Furet 1981
 Reid 2005, 196
 Reid 2005, p.205
 Agrégée et docteure en histoire, habilitée à diriger des recherches, elle est directrice de recherche au CNRS rattachée à l’Institut Interdisciplinaire du Contemporain (IIAC) et directrice de l’équipe Tram, « Transformations radicales des mondes contemporains »
 La Fabrique éditions 2003
 Wahnich 2012
 Wahnich 2013
 “Robespierrists, anti-Robespierrists, we ask for mercy: for pity’s sake, tell us, simply, what Robespierre did.”
 Bureau 2013
 Wahnich 2013
 Bureau 2013, p.91 ‘This black legend acts as a filter which blocks our access to the historical Robespierre’
 Kim 2015, p.996
 Robespierre 2007, p.115
 Mantel 2000
 Linton 2013
 Linton 2015
 Lindon 2015
 Linton 2015
 Hazan 2014, p. 376
 Wright 2007, p.177
 Wright 2007, p.178
 Wright 2007, p.179
 Dobrenko 2010, p.77
 Wright 2007, p.180
 Wright 2007, p.182
 Trotsky 1969, p.226
 Bowring 2008
 Badiou 2003
 See the incisive Introduction, ‘Between Two Revolutions” to Slavoj Žižek’s important collection of Lenin’s writings from this period, Žižek 2011.
Despite Osborne’s spin, the stats show that our housing crisis has grown ever worse since he became Chancellor, writes LIZ DAVIES
“OSBORNE set to ‘eradicate homelessness’,” the Sun screamed on March 7, anticipating the Budget and regurgitating the Chancellor’s spin doctors.
The actual detail in the Budget? £115 million for more hostel beds for people who have slept rough. Obviously funding more hostel beds is a good thing, particularly if you are one of those who would otherwise be on the streets. But this is a drop in the ocean in the context of the housing crisis. We are a long way off from eradicating, or even tackling, homelessness.
The structural causes of homelessness need truly radical solutions; solutions which tackle the economic policies behind spiralling house prices, unaffordable private rents, and social housing having been starved of resources.
Homelessness in England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different and…
View original post 688 more words
See the fireworks the real movement which abolishes the present state of things created by blogging on WordPress.com. Check out their 2015 annual report.
SCRSS: Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies
Digest No.2, Summer 2015
Gay rights in Russia
Homosexuality is not a criminal offence in Russia – since 1993. In 1999 it ceased to be regarded as a mental illness. Indeed, Russian history has many famous homosexuals – the poet Alexei Apukhtin; Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes; and of course the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The younger brother of Tsar Alexander III, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov, was famous for his homosexual exploits while serving as Governor of Moscow from 1891 to 1905.
Homosexuality was legalised following the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. But in 1933, under Stalin, Article 121 of the Criminal Code made male homosexuality a crime punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment with hard labour. This anti-gay law, like the prohibition of abortion at the same time, was strongly supported by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which began to revive following the enactment of the 1936 USSR Constitution, Article 124 of which declared freedom of religion. The Church was fully rehabilitated by Stalin in 1943, to play a decisive role in the Great Patriotic War. The ROC is to this day a fierce opponent of gay rights.
In 2006 gay activists attempted to organise the first Gay Pride march in Moscow, but this was banned by the Moscow City authorities, and marchers were forcibly dispersed. Applications to hold a Gay Pride march in Moscow have been rejected every year since. On 21 May 2015 the City once again rejected an application to hold a march on 30 May 2015. The RIA Novosti agency quoted the Mayor’s spokesman Alexey Mayorov as saying.”We have warned the organisers that the demonstration will not be authorised,” and told them of the risks should they ignore the ban. No reasons for the ban were given.
The gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was present with other foreign observers in 2006 and said: “We were immediately set upon by about 100 fascist thugs and religious fanatics who began pushing, punching and kicking us.” In 2007 Tatchell and the German parliamentarian Volker Beck were punched in the face by anti-gay protesters.
In 2007, 2008 and 2009 the leading Russian gay activist Nikolay Alekseyev applied to the European Court of Human Rights complaining of a violation of his right to peaceful assembly on account of the repeated ban on public events he had organised in 2006, 2007 and 2008. He also complained that he had not had an effective remedy against the alleged violation of his freedom of assembly and that the Moscow authorities’ treatment of his applications to hold the events had been discriminatory.
He argued that his right under Article 30 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which provides that everyone has the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, had been violated. Article 55 (3) provides that rights and freedoms may be restricted by federal laws for the protection of constitutional principles, public morals, health and the rights and lawful interests of others, and to ensure the defence and security of the State. The 2004 Federal Law “On assemblies, meetings, demonstrations, marches and picketing” should, if applied properly, permit Gay Pride marches where application has been made beforehand.
On 21 October 2010 the Court unanimously – including the great Russian judge Anatoly Kovler – concluded that the ban on the events organised by Mr Alekseyev did not correspond to a pressing social need and was thus not necessary in a democratic society. Furthermore, he had been denied an effective legal remedy, and he had suffered discrimination.
This resounding judgment did not lead to a change in the policy of the Moscow authorities. Many more complaints to the European Court of Human Rights are pending. It is highly likely that the Court will adopt a “pilot judgment” against Russia, setting out detailed instructions designed to resolve what is clearly a systemic issue.
On 13 December 2010 the Federal Law “On protection of children from information leading to harm to their health and development”, promoted by Yelena Mizulina, came into force, and has been amended – and made more severe – by amendments in 2012 and 2013. The 2013 amendment added “propaganda” promoting “non-traditional sexual relationships” as a class of harmful content under the law. The Code of Administrative Misdemeanors (KOAP) provides by Article 6.17 for punishment of violation of the Law by large fines. Yelena Mizulina is the chairperson of the Russian Duma’s Committee on Family, Women, and Children. She is the Russian Mary Whitehouse, a champion of high moral standards, and promotes legislative initiatives to improve the morality of Russian society.
Nevertheless, there have been few prosecutions to date. Here are examples. In December 2013, Mr Alexeyev and Yaroslav Yevtushenko picketed outside a children’s library in Arkhangelsk holding banners that read, “Gays aren’t made, they’re born!” The two were fined 4,000 roubles and their appeal was rejected. The activist Dmitry Isakov protested the law in Kazan. Several months later, he was summoned to court after a teenager in Arkhangelsk had seen photos of his protest online and filed a complaint. Isakov was fined 4,000 roubles in January 2014. The newspaper editor Alexander Suturin was summoned to court after he published an interview with an openly gay schoolteacher in his weekly paper in Khabarovsk. Fines are much higher for those accused of spreading propaganda with the help of media or the Internet, and Mr Suturin was fined 50,000 rubles in 2014. In the interview, the teacher, who was told his school contract would not be renewed after he came out publicly as gay, defended LGBT rights. The teacher’s dismissal has been upheld in court.
17 May every year is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. That date was chosen to commemorate the decision to remove homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1990.
On 17 May 2015, various events devoted to the International Day took place all over the world. In Russia, applications to hold LGBT pickets or demonstrations are highly likely to be rejected by the local authorities. Activists have therefore organised “rainbow flashmobs”, and these and other events took place in 16 Russian cities – in Arkhangelsk, Voronezh, Ekaterinburg, Krasnodar, Moscow, Nakhodka, Novosibirsk, Murmansk, Samara, St. Petersburg, Omsk, Perm, Tolyatti, Tomsk, Tyumen and Khabarovsk. Most rallies took place without serious incidents.
– Law & the Political –
Human rights claims are always scandalous, and were a scandal and an affront to the law from the very start.
Ivor Crewe, the former Essex Vice-Chancellor, and a political scientist, used to compare contemporary human rights activists to 19th century Christian missionaries, spreading the gospel to less enlightened peoples. There is more than a grain of truth to this ironical jibe, aimed at his colleagues in the Human Rights Centre.
Late last year I was invited to make presentations on behalf of the Council of Europe in Bosnia and in Macedonia. I have just been twice to Russia. I am about to go and do human rights work in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and through my EHRACproject I take many cases to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg against Russia and other countries of the Former Soviet Union.
What is the legitimacy of this practice – what word is it precisely that I am spreading or seeking to vindicate? What right do I have to pass judgment on the governments of states which have such different culture and histories from ours? In what way can the people I meet benefit from what I have to say as a human rights expert and practitioner?
One “true believer” in human rights is my LSE colleague Francesca Klug. The titles of two of her books are Values for a Godless Age (2000) andA Magna Carta for All Humanity: Homing in on Human Rights: Time for a New Enlightenment? (2015).
On the other hand, there is a growing literature expressing deep scepticism in the human rights project, especially the world of movements such as Amnesty International – for example Stephen Hopgood’s Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International (2006) and The Endtimes of Human Rights (2013). Hopgood says that Amnesty is “much more like a Free Church whose main product, thus far, has been moral authority, not social change.”
The controversial Chicago scholar Eric Posner has recently published The Twilight of Human Rights Law (2014), in which he concludes that the complex and growing structure of UN human rights treaties, committees, state reports, and individual complaints actually makes very little difference to suffering humanity.
And there is now a highly influential ‘revisionist’ account of human rights by the Harvard historian Samuel Moyn, in his The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010) and Human Rights and the Uses of History(2014). He starts by saying, not so unusually:
When people hear the phrase “human rights,” they think of the highest moral precepts and political ideals… The phrase implies an agenda for improving the world, and bringing about a new one in which the dignity of each individual will enjoy secure international protection. It is a recognisably utopian programme.
However, his most controversial claim is that “The year of human rights, 1977, began with Carter’s January 20 inauguration, which put ‘human rights’ in front of the viewing public for the first time in American history.” Indeed, he argues that “The drama of human rights, then, is that they emerged in the 1970s seemingly from nowhere.”
For me, that is a puzzling claim, since I would start in the late 18th century with the American Bill of Rights, and in particular in 1789, in the French Revolution, with the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen(Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen — Olympe de Gouges drafted a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, but was guillotined). Moyn argues that the Déclaration did not really concern “human rights” as he understands them, but are rather about the “politics of the state” — the creation of the nation of France. He pours similar scorn on the Right to Self-Determination and the national liberation struggles after World War II.
Of course, Moyn is quite right to identify the 1970s as the period of the explosion in the use of human rights language by world leaders, especially President Jimmy Carter, and the rise to prominence of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, FIDH, and other international human rights non-governmental organisations. All of them share a lack of internal democracy and accountability. They are answerable only to morality and the grandiose structure of international human rights law.
However, for me, human rights are rather different from domestic law, and do not have their origins in the international treaties post WW II. That is, they do not have their origins in legislation. Human rights are not “the command of the sovereign” (in the words of the English positivist John Austin) and cannot be ascertained by a “rule of recognition” (H. L. A. Hart). Nor are human rights part of the law as a whole (law as integrity) on the basis of which Judge Hercules always comes to the right answer (Ronald Dworkin).
I argue that human rights claims are always scandalous, and were a scandal and an affront to the law from the very start. I recommend to my students a great collection: Jeremy Waldron’s Nonsense upon Stilts: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man (2014). All three subjected human rights as set out in the French Déclaration to severe criticism. Edmund Burke, the father of English conservatism, saw the Déclaration as embodying terrorist language which would blow up all hard-won freedoms and venerable institutions. “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts,” said Jeremy Bentham, one of the fathers of English liberalism. And Karl Marx saw these civil and political rights as the rights of the egotist, who does not want to participate in society.
In my 2008 book The Degradation of the International Legal Order: The Rehabilitation of Law and the Possibility of Politics, I have sketched a materialist and historicised account of the genesis and significance of human rights. This account focuses on the concretisation and recognition of each “generation” of human rights in the context of revolutionary events — civil and political rights in1789, social and economic rights in the aftermath of WWI I and the Bolshevik Revolution, and third generation rights of interdependence starting with the right of peoples to self-determination.
Working this out in detail is my current preoccupation.
Bill Bowring is Professor of Law at Birkbeck College, Barrister, Fellow of the Essex Human Rights centre, founder and chair of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), author most recently of Law, Rights and Ideology in Russia: Landmarks in the Destiny of a Great Power(Routledge, 2013). Follow Bill on Twitter at @BillBowring
Law, Rights and Ideology in Russia: Landmarks in the Destiny of a Great Power
Routledge, Abingdon and New York, 2014. 238pp., £30 / $54.95 pb
Reviewed by P Sean Morris
P Sean Morris
P Sean Morris studied law in Moscow (1998-2003) and is currently a researcher at the Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki. His research interests lie in the fields of international law broadly conceived, critical legal theory, and developments in Russian politics and law. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This book traces the various ideological and legal developments in the Russian Federation and forms a captivating narrative which shows how the influences of Karl Marx and Adam Smith have shaped the evolution of Russia over hundreds of years to the rise of modern “sovereign democracy” or managed democracy in the Putin era. Moreover, like the broader debate surrounding law and ideology, the book brings to the forefront key issues in the development and practice of the rule of law in Russia and how it is juxtaposed with the new ideology of sovereign democracy. In effect, the book tells a tale of the practice of ideology in law. In general, the book deals with how Marxian thought evolved in Russia and how a new thought, based on the resurrection of Carl Schmitt, is proving to be the ideological foundations of modern Russia. But, at the same time, there are a number of questions pertaining to law and ideology that the book raises, and not all of them are adequately answered.
Authors often wrestle with questions such as: is law, or the rule thereof, the legal expression of a political ideology, and can the rule of law be separated from the “political vertical” of a state? These questions can be contentious and any attempt to provide satisfactory answers can transcend many fields: political science, sociology, history, legal science, philosophy among others. Furthermore, any “correct” answer can be dismissed for being subjective or for being based on a particular agenda. Unfortunately, that is one of the negative trappings of research into questions that concerns “law and ideology”, and often it is best to point only to the developments in a particular state to offer a meaningful discourse.
For some time now, at least since Vladimir Putin rose to power in Rossiyskaya Federatiysa (new Russia in this context, but Russia generally in other references), he has been promoting the idea of vertikalnaja vlast(power vertical) – or rule from the executive, in which power is consolidated centrally and manages the affairs of the state. The idea of vertikalnaja vlast in which a central source manages and coordinates the government and state in a tight manner is based on the view that in complex societies such as Rossiyskaya Federatiysaonly a central source of power can deliver the rule of law to unite the state. In this case the rule of law is an expression of the political. This is how I have come to construct the notion of the “political vertical” based on (a) the vertikalnaja vlast doctrine and (b) law seen as an extension of politics.
But my (subjective) outlook raises a number of other questions, and this is where the well-known Russophile, Bill Bowring comes in, because he has managed to provide a number of answers to similar questions in this work. Bowring’s work sometimes reads like a tale from Alexander Pushkin’s Istoriya Pugacheva (A History of Pugachev, 1833-4) or Mikhail Lermontov’s Stranniy Chelovek (A Strange Man, 1831 first published in 1860). Both works were written thirty years prior to the great legal and political reforms of Alexander II that began in the 1860s. Bowring manages to provide a narrative full of drama, tragedy and philosophical encounters, all the while narrating the various epochs that shaped Rossiyskaya Federatiysa in its ideological and legal evolution. And, Rossiyskaya Federatiysa, is indeed “strange” (Winston Churchill famously quipped that Russia is a riddle, full of mystery ‘inside an enigma’ (3)), and full of various rebellions (revolutions) that often aspire to great ideals and change.
Law and ideology from a Russian perspective are both progressive (revolutionary) and represent a struggle to adapt. If Pushkin was recounting the Pugachev Rebellion with new material and Lermontov was discussing a romantic drama with tales of sadistic rule, then Bowring is also narrating various Russian epochs with new material and telling the tales of victimhood via human rights and the death penalty, albeit with Russian material some of which he browsed at libraries in Moscow. Bowring’s narrative is set in three “scenes” that embodies a typical format when discussing Russia: i) the imperial period, broadly Chapters 1-4, ii) the Soviet period, Chapters 5-6, and iii) Rossiyskaya Federatiysa, Chapters 7-10, followed by a conclusion and an autobiographical sketch by Bowring of himself.
From the very beginning, Bowring is adamant that the book is just a collection of episodes and themes that are landmarks, and warns his readers that the ‘book is not a general history of law in Russia; neither is it one of politics or ideas.’ (1) Indeed, one gets the feeling that the book contains snippets, or “landmarks” of history of law in Russia, of how ideological theories shaped Russia during the imperial and Soviet periods, and how some of those ideas are again taking shape in the new Russia in the form of “sovereign democracy” (managed democracy), a theme Bowring discusses beautifully , although that discussion is brief. Russophiles get a rapid introduction to a series of historical and theoretical events in the history of Russia which most of the early chapters cover, while seasoned Kremlinologists can pay close attention to two particular chapters: the one on Yevgeniy Pashukanis and the chapter on “sovereign democracy”.
In Chapters 1 and 2 Bowring recounts how Karl Marx and Adam Smith influenced ideological and legal innovations in Russia. Bowring relies heavily on a number of authors, using numerous long quotations, to demonstrate that Marx and a combination of early Russian religious beliefs embed the idea that Russia had a messianic duty to save the world thus creating a ‘Russian identity and ideology.’ (17) A religiously infused Russia coupled with early Marxian thought set the tone for Russia’s course with destiny. Bowring is not convinced that we ought to believe that Russian ideology and legal philosophy began with Marxian thought. Adam Smith, he contends, also had a role, and in Chapter 2 he produces a convincing discussion on how the Scottish enlightenment influenced legal innovations in the Russian empire, in particular through the Scottish educated jurist Semyon Desnitskiy (1740-89) and the German educated Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-65).
Unlike Chapter 1, which lacks substantial discussion of the lengthy quotes, Chapter 2 provides an excellent narrative on the early emergence of reformism and legal thought in Russia. The effects of those legal innovations and reforms kick in, in the 1860s, when Tsar Alexander II initiated the great legal reforms in Russia that Bowring discusses in Chapter 3; and which, in an ironical twist of fate, Putin reactivated in the 2000s. One of those reforms was trial by jury which Putin successfully restored in Russia. But prior to the new Russia, the remnants of imperial Russia flirted with a mixture of Marxism and Lenin’s Bolshevism, ideas that gave the world the Soviet Union. Soviet jurists had to adjust their legal and philosophical thoughts to fit the new paradigm, and Bowring explores the works of eminent Soviet jurists such as Pashukanis in Chapter 4 and the idea of self-determination in international law in Chapter 5.
The short lived flirtation with communism and the disappearance of the Soviet Union overnight (in 1991) left Russia in a wounded state, and by 1999 a new tsar from the “imperial courts” of St. Petersburg arrived in Moscow. His message was a new form of Russian conservatism and interpretation of the rule of law:vertikalnaja vlast, and “sovereign democracy” would be the new mantra that began to shape Rossiyskaya Federatiysa. In Chapter 6 and 7 Bowring recounts how the internal struggles by “provinces” in Rossiyskaya Federatiysa for independence along the lines of the Republics of the former Soviet Union created a ‘parade of sovereignties’ and autonomy. In a number of themes Bowring highlights some of the complications thatRossiyskaya Federatiysa faced with its subjects, and how it had to enter into bilateral treaties.
Those discussions are too short and in any event cannot be fitted into a book that purports to give snippets of the events that shaped Russia. The internal struggles for “independence” (autonomy) in Rossiyskaya Federatiysa, Bowring declares, had much stronger roots than in most western democracies which gave Russia a greater tolerance of religious and legal pluralism. By Chapter 8, Bowring begins to show his strength, and in what is the best chapter up to that point, he describes the pro and cons of the human rights debate inRossiyskaya Federatiysa and its accession to the Council of Europe (COE), and then in Chapter 9 the debate on the death penalty. By this point, it is also evident that Bowring has an agenda – Russia is terrible at compliance with its obligations in the human rights field and this is due in part to ‘anti-Western and anti-liberal thinking’ (173) and, what seems “strange” to Bowring, Russia’s efforts to abolish the death penalty (191), especially the steps taken during the imperial period.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the book, in particular from a law and ideology perspective, is the discussion of sovereign democracy in Chapter 10, which Bowring argues ‘has a direct impact on law and on human rights’ (194) in Rossiyskaya Federatiysa. The idea of sovereign democracy – ‘the supreme independent (sovereign) power of the people (democracy)’, as one justification puts it, is largely a phenomena ofRossiyskaya Federatiysa where, broadly, the vertical power consolidates the Russian government and manages the affairs of the state from a central point (president and siloviki). One of its sponsors declares: ‘Russian democracy – is sovereign, and the sovereignty of the Russian state – is democratic … Precisely for this reason in the globalizing world the defense of the interests of the state demands the uniting and not the breaking up of sovereignties.’ (197) The emergence of this new form of thought in modern Russia is the work of a handful of young conservatives who belong to institutions such as the Supreme Court, influential research institutes in Moscow with government connections, and elite academic institutions.
The proponents of sovereign democracy have resurrected theorists such as Carl Schmitt to argue thatRossiyskaya Federatiysa had a duty to defend its national interests especially from external influences such as the European Court of Human Rights to which it subjected itself when it joined the COE. Bowring is rather disturbed at the invocation of Carl Schmitt in the new Russian ideology of sovereign democracy and the impact Russian constitutional scholars, who are proponents of sovereign democracy, have on ‘the ideology of law and relations between Russian and the European Court of Human Rights’ (203), Although the Chapter ends without a proper conclusion or assessment, without a doubt Bowring has a deep insight into Russian law and ideological developments, in particular the ones he highlights as landmarks in this narrative.
But Bowring’s narrative suffers from a few shortcomings. The most anticipated discussion, and arguably the most gripping chapter – on sovereign democracy – suffers from a lack of detailed discussion. This is also a feature in most of the other chapters. Although rich in mostly Russian sources and lengthy quotations throughout, one often gets the feeling that a skeletal brief for a court argument has been drafted and presented without the support of extensive analysis.
Nevertheless, Bowring uses his combined talent in law and philosophy to produce a narrative that will grab the interest of Russophiles and Kremlinologists alike. But perhaps one of the greatest contributions that Bowring makes is giving anti-Russians a useful insight into how to contextualize their arguments when making claims about Rossiyskaya Federatiysa, because westerners generally make a lot of claims about Russia without properly understanding the enigma that spans the Eurasian landmass with its varied “peoples”, ideas and legal pluralism. Bowring should be commended for transferring some of that knowledge into an accessible format in what is largely a gripping discourse on a strange people often fraught with rebellions.
18 February 2015