Over the last week I have been chilled by some resemblances between the current American political, social and cultural crisis and the great people’s tragedy that unfolded in Russia in 1917.
An intoxicated radicalism has taken hold in this ancient constitutional republic, and disordered its institutions of politics, culture, law and justice. A carnival of protest, rebellion, unrest and even talk of revolution and civil war has broken out. It has broken the shackles of the lockdown, and danced in the streets. Like a Russian imperial guard on a wild vodka-drinking bender, the crowds – or parts of the crowd – have extinguished their grief in intoxication, and in a wild frenzy are acting out their anger by smashing every glass, every dish, every bottle in the house.
The frenzy has been stimulated by many true grievances, not just the alleged murder of George Floyd, but many years of failures of many kinds. I say alleged murder, let me add, not to doubt what happened, but to respect the rule of law and to ensure justice is done. The grievance is stark; noone can watch the act without condemnation. Importantly, noone did. It has been universally damned – by left and right, by true and false, by the President and the people on the streets. Nor is the grievance alone – there have been other killings, over many years. The statistics do not bear out some extravagant claims of the grieving protestors – genocide, being hunted, and so on – but grief howls its own truths, embellished with delusion and embroidered with fragments of all the failures: past murders, past riots from Baltimore and Ferguson, 1992 and 1968, the mistakes of the lockdown, the transfer of wealth to Wall Street by the betrayer of hope, Barack Obama, the Crime Act of the Clinton era, excessive imprisonment, feral cities, drugs, failed drugs programs, poverty, failed poverty programs, broken families, endless wars, corruption of Congress by special interests and lobbying, and the plantation owner attitude towards black voters of the Democratic Party, who have for decades run Minneapolis and most of the cities burning and rioting in America over the last week, expressed very recently by Joe Biden to one of the leading African American radio/podcasting hosts – “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
Many of the governing elites (like Joe Biden) perpetrated many of these failures in person, by themselves, with their own hands, eyes and minds, not behind the anonymous mask of “systemic racism”. Now they conceal their guilt in acts of abasement. At the moment when cities are burning, the looters are breaking through windows, and the unprotected are abandoned, authority crumbles at the knees, and many of the cossetted elites reveal themselves as the cowards, liars and executioners who they truly are. They do not stand up to or suppress the insurrection ands the plain, ordinary crime, they pander to it. They call it sweet names – “largely peaceful protests”. They try to ride the dragon in their own intoxication. The bad actors who pretend to be journalists – like Chris Cuomo, Don Lemon, the utterly ridiculous and fraudulent Nikole Hannah-Jones (who claims property destruction, smashing windows, burning churches, looting family businesses is “not violence”) and many more – imagine themselves the righteous intellectual patrons like Maxim Gorky:, who Lenin described as “calflike” in his political naivete: donating to the riots, inviting the thugs into their homes, providing succour to evil. As a recent study of Gorky by Anita Kondoyanidi has written:
“Gorky’s personal experiences with violence at the hands of the Russian petit bourgeoisie and peasantry generated his strong and tenacious desire to recast Man and heal Russia and Russians from their innate pessimism and laziness. Once Gorky accepted selective use of violence in building an ideal Soviet society and offered Russia a utopian project – the creation of a new, improved human being—he contributed to the horrifying reality of the 1930s, making himself an unintentional accomplice in the Soviet revolutionary and repressive experiment.”Kondoyanini, The Prophet Disillusioned: Maxim Gorky and the Russian Revolutions, PhD thesis, Georgetown University 2019
They will fail, just as the degraded and demoralised elites of Russia failed to control the ruthless agitators (like Antifa and Black Lives Matter) and shadowy conspirators (like John Brennan and Jim Mattis) who saw them in the end as useful idiots.
I am not sure I quite ended the post the way I imagined when I began it. I am very troubled by the events, and especially the handling of the story by the mass media and so many intellectuals deranged by Donald Trump. They have become the Union of Soviet Writers protecting a shadow government they wish to reinstall. I am genuinely concerned about a coup, the involvement of the estranged and discredited deep state actors, under investigation for the last coup attempt in the RussiaGate hoax, and a fundamental breakdown in law and order in America. I feel betrayed by nearly all sides. One does not need to succumb to Trump Derangement Syndrome to have doubts whether Donald Trump can ride this storm. As Steve Bannon says, he is an imperfect instrument. We all are. That is why we need institutions. But as the Flynn case makes clear, Obama, the Democratic Party and its corrupt faction of the American Empire are not to be trusted with democracy or the institutions of law, justice and security either.
I am rereading Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891-1924 to refamiliarise myself with the events of Russia in 1917 that led to the breakdown of order, culture, and civilisation in a riot of agitprop, violence and terror that sought to remake humanity in a new normal. Another day, I may extend the comparison.