Posts Tagged ‘Leninism’


Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover(The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016, 462 pp., $18.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were the most popular science fiction writers in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s through the early 1990s (when the Bloc dissolved), and were arguably the most popular science fiction authors ever. In his illuminating forward, fellow Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of Metro 2033, reveals that their many novels in the 1970s had initial press runs of 500,000 and sold out immediately. Their 1964 novel, Hard to be a God, is very probably the biggest selling science fiction title of all time, the world over.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I became a Strugatsky enthusiast and read everything I could find by them in English. So, I was excited to see the appearance of Doomed City last year — a Strugatsky novel I’d never heard of.

It turns out that they wrote it in 1972, but hid the manuscript and didn’t dare to send it to a publisher for fear of being thrown in a gulag (yes, it could have happened even to such immensely popular authors) until the perestroika period in the late 1980s. It finally appeared in Russian in 1989, and the English translation only appeared last year.

Why? Doomed City is a bleak, brutal, and very thinly veiled critique of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced it and all of its horrors.

Doomed City is set in the City (always capitalized), a place entirely isolated that might not even be on Earth, and which is the site of the Experiment (the nature of which is never explained, nor are the experimenters named). The residents of the City are all volunteers drawn from all over the world: Russians, Americans, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Swedes, and Germans, including former Nazis. Once in the City, they’re arbitrarily assigned to jobs unrelated to their previous occupations.

The protagonist, and by far the best drawn character, is Andrei Voronin, a former astrophysicist who, at the beginning of the book, is working as a garbage collector. He’s also, not coincidentally, a former Komsomol (official Communist Party youth organization) member, a conventional Marxist-Leninist, and a bit of a blockhead.

Through the following 400+ pages, we follow Voronin and his acquaintances as he works respectively as a garbage collector, detective, journalist, political boss, and adventurer/expedition leader (while still a political boss).

What’s striking throughout all this is how Voronin’s work, the amount of power he has in each job, and his position within the City’s hierarchy, is reflected in his attitudes.

As a garbage collector, he’s a blind believer in the Experiment, despite his bottom-of-the-heap position and the grossly obvious flaws in the City and its workings.

As a policeman, he becomes distrustful, suspects everyone, and becomes increasingly willing to use brutality — supplied by former Nazis who are now fellow policemen — against those he looks down on, which is pretty much the entire population of the City, including his supposed friends.

As a journalist, he adopts an adversarial attitude toward those in power.

And as a political boss, he adopts the attitudes of a political boss: entitlement, contempt for those he supposedly serves, willingness to suck up to even the slimiest political hierarchs, willingness to use violence and coercion to remain in power, and acceptance of a rigidly stratified society, with the political bosses on top and the vast army of proles (including personal servants) beneath them.

It would be hard to provide a better description of the characteristics of the “leadership” that ran the Soviet Union.

This political critique is by far the best part of the book. Other than that, Doomed City doesn’t have much to recommend it. It has a certain dreamy quality, which, however, is largely the result of poor, or at least deliberately hazy, writing (done in part in the vain hope of disguising the political critique, or at least rendering it nonspecific).

Almost all of the descriptive passages are vaguely written, using generalities rather than concrete physical description. The geography of the City, even its size, is all but indecipherable (as is the geography of the lands Voronin explores in the final section of the book). And there are too many nearly nonsensical stream-of-consciousness passages (from inside Voronin’s head), some lasting for pages. (At many points, I found myself asking, “When will this passage end?”)

As well, the secondary characters aren’t very well drawn, there are numerous loose ends, there’s almost nothing in the way of a conventional plot, and the authors offer nothing even approaching a solution to the dismal situation they critique so effectively.

That critique is summed up in a line by Izya Katzman, the most prominent and arguably the best drawn secondary character, in the latter part of the book:

“Any elite that controls the lives and fates of other people is odious.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Recommended only for diehard Strugatsky fans and those with an interest in critiques of Leninism and the former Soviet Union.

(For those new to the Strugatskys, rather than starting with Doomed City, I’d recommend Hard to be a God and Roadside Picnic.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 

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[the] PEOPLE’S WILL, phr. A variant spelling of “God’s Will.” Curiously, even though the usage and meaning of the two phrases are virtually identical, those who use the one are habitual enemies of those who use the other, though “habitual competitors” might be more accurate.

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–from the revised and expanded edition of The American Heretic’s Dictionary, the best modern successor to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary

American Heretic's Dictionary revised and expanded by Chaz Bufe, front cover

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Today’s definition seems apropos given the death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. We’ll put up another pertinent definition tomorrow and, we hope, a fairly lengthy post on Castro and his counter-revolutionary regime on Wednesday or Thursday.


Quantum Night, by Robert J. Sawyer front cover(Quantum Night, by Robert J. Sawyer; Ace, 2016, 351 pp., $27.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

There’s a lot to like and a lot to dislike in Canadian science fiction writer Robert Sawyer’s new novel.

On the positive side, this is the most ambitious sci-fi novel I’ve read in ages. The writing is skillful — among other things, seamlessly switching between first person and third person narration — and the primary character is believable and sympathetic, if a bit on the irritating side. Sawyer uses the novel as a platform to talk intelligently about philosophical and ethical big issues — something all too rare in contemporary science fiction: Quantum Night makes you think. As well, Sawyer obviously did a thorough job of researching the novel’s background, the supposed quantum-related nature of consciousness — an area in which I’m totally out of my depth.

On the negative side, it’s difficult to buy the political background in which Quantum Night is set, especially that in the U.S. border areas (where I live). As well, Sawyer sets up an essential (for the secondary plot) series of events (riots) for which he provides no explanation.  Beyond that, from the point of view of psychology (an area in which I do know a bit), it’s very difficult to buy Sawyer’s underlying deterministic premise about the nature of consciousness and how it varies in the population. Beyond that, Sawyer provides the most nauseatingly graphic description of violence I’ve ever read; I found the scene so disturbing that I put down the book for several days before deciding that I really did want to see how the novel concluded.

Yet despite the gruesome violence, Sawyer adheres to the standard sci-fi bowdlerization of sexual scenes. Why? Why is sex more taboo than explicit, horrifying violence in sci-fi? (The only exceptions to that prudishness that immediately come to mind are some of the works of Walter Mosley and Richard K. Morgan.)

Quantum Night begins with a cringe-inducing series of scenes in which the protagonist, academic psychologist Jim Marchuk, a specialist in diagnosing psychopathic tendencies, learns that he has no memory of six months of his life as an undergraduate, and that he apparently did terrible things — things totally out of character — during those six months.

Marchuk shortly reconnects with his girlfriend from those lost six months, Kayla Huron,  a quantum physicist who, to quote the endflap, “has made a stunning discovery about the nature of human consciousness,” and not coincidentally has developed what she considers a foolproof method of diagnosing psychopathy.

Her discovery is that the quantum state of electrons in certain portions of the brain determine whether a person is a “philosopher’s zombie” (“p-zed” — a non-self-aware being with no inner voice who merely responds to external stimuli–in Sawyer’s schema 4/7 of the population), a psychopath (a self-aware being without empathy–according to the schema, 2/7 of the population–an astoundingly high proportion, far higher than the common estimates of 1% to 5% of the population), or a self-aware being with empathy (1/7  of the population). I have essentially no knowledge of quantum physics nor brain physiology, so I have no way to judge whether this is plausible; however, Sawyer always does his homework, so I suspect (in terms of quantum physics and brain physiology) it is, however barely. (The breakdown of the numbers of p-zeds, psychopaths, and self-aware, empathetic people is purely arbitrary, purely a plot device.)

There are, however, nonphysiological reasons to doubt that it is plausible. If people were pure behavioral animals reacting mindlessly to external stimuli (p-zeds), they wouldn’t react radically differently to identical stimuli and wouldn’t be almost universally at least somewhat emotionally disturbed. (We’re talking about the garden varieties of emotional disturbance here, such as anxiety and depression, not trauma-induced PTSD.) Pertinently, the most effective type of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, is, to simplify, based on the premise that what people (often subconsciously) tell themselves largely determines their emotions: change what you tell yourself — deliberately tell yourself rational instead of irrational things — and you’ll minimize your emotional disturbance. And it works. So there go your “philosopher’s zombies,” who by definition don’t tell themselves anything.

Sawyer sets all this against a backdrop of ever-worsening rioting (for no apparent reason) in both Canada and the U.S., pogroms against Mexicans in Texas (based on a law restricting legal protection — including protection against murder — to U.S. citizens) , and belligerent psychopaths in both the White House and Kremlin. (What else is new?)

The unmotivated rioting is difficult to buy, the pogroms are equally difficult to buy, and it’s inconceivable that any U.S. court, no matter how reactionary, would ever declare such a law redefining murder constitutional, even in Texas. And if pogroms ever would break out down here along the border, it’s absolutely certain that there would be armed resistance; people would not meekly accept it.

The reason for this dire background is to set up a secondary plot — what can our heroes do about these things?  This is unfortunate, as the primary plot — Marchuk’s journey of discovery about what he did and why — is more than adequate, and the secondary plot seems implausible.

Even worse, much of the philosophical discussion in Quantum Night revolves around utilitarianism, the philosophy that ethical behavior is that which promotes the greatest good for the greatest number. Sawyer seems very much in favor of this concept. So far so good. However, he goes beyond this and seems to be making the case that it’s okay, in fact ethically necessary, to play god with the lives of other people as long as you consider it necessary to the “greater good.”  In other words, the ends justify the means. (My apologies to Sawyer if I’m misreading him, but I don’t think I am.)

This is a horrendous belief, one that is an integral part of the foundation of some of the worst forms of totalitarianism. Leninism, a conspicuously utilitarian political philosophy (which is supposed to produce the greatest good for the greatest number), is the example par excellence, and its terrible results when imposed are too well known to enumerate here. Suffice it to say that a very large number of human problems, both individual and societal, are a direct result of those (such as Sawyer’s protagonist) who consider themselves more enlightened than the great unwashed masses and play god with the lives of others — for their “own good,” of course.

Still, despite its warts, Quantum Night is well worth reading. The writing is first rate, Sawyer provides much thought-provoking discussion of philosophical and ethical problems (mostly in chapter introductions recounting Marchuk’s class lectures), the characters are believable and somewhat sympathetic, and the plot will have you on the edge of your seat throughout most of the book.

Recommended.

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Free Radicals front cover

 

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

The first six chapters of Free Radicals, are avaukable  here in pdf form.


Anarchist Cookbook front cover

(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)

Vanguard parties (i.e., any of the 57 varieties of leninist parties–marxist-leninist, maoist, stalinist, trotskyist, etc., etc.) have a long and sordid history. Their goal is always the same: seizure of the state apparatus in the name of the people. The leninist term for this is the oxymoronic “dictatorship of the proletariat”–as if an entire class of people could somehow be a dictator. But no, the dictator is, of course, the ultra-hierarchical vanguard party itself, as the expression, somehow, of the “will of the people.” (Transubstantiation perhaps?)

The Bolsheviks provide the most prominent early example of a vanguard party. The results of their power seizure are well known: over a hundred thousand prisoners murdered by the Cheka (secret police) under Lenin, over ten million more murdered or starved to death under Stalin, a one-party state, suppression of civil liberties, elimination of independent unions, dictatorial control of workplaces by the party/state apparatus, tens of millions in gulags, purges, show trials, secret police, personality cults, and the rise of a new party/government elite–a “new class” that took the place and the privileges of the old elite.lenin-small

Where vanguard parties have taken power since the Bolsheviks, the results invariably have been bleak, from the surveillance state of Honecker’s DDR (East Germany), to the mass murder in Mao’s China (among other things, the murder of three million landlords–although, sad to say, that does have a certain appeal) and the subsequent transformation of the leninist state there into a fascist state, to the nightmare of North Korea, where millions starve while the state lavishes the proceeds of their labor on a bloated military, nuclear weapons, and grotesque spectacles–all in the context of a “people’s state” that is in effect a hereditary monarchy.

In fact, the record of vanguard parties that have seized power is so uniformly awful that there’s little point in examining them at length. They’re simply failures–all of them. Examining their ideologies, structures, and theories is of interest only as an exercise in forensic pathology.

At this point, some readers will say, “What about Cuba?” Well, what about it? Even after over half a century of dictatorship, many American leftists still have a soft spot for the Cuban Communists. They’ve bought into a false dichotomy: that the only choice is between U.S. imperialism and the “Communist” dictatorship. Their attitude seems to be, “Well, we wouldn’t want that here, but it’s for the best there, so, we support Fidel (now his brother Raul).” To put it mildly, this is paternalistic and smacks disturbingly of what one might charitably call hero worship.

Decades ago, a maoist friend told me about his experiences in Cuba as part of a Venceremos Brigade in the 1970s. (Venceremos Brigades were bands of American leftists who traveled to Cuba to work in the cane fields in support of “the revolution.”) At one point, Fidel himself showed up where they were working in the fields. My friend told me that he found the reaction of his fellow brigadistas sickening, that their reaction was like that of 14-year-olds at a Beatles concert. And this at a time when the Castro regime was still executing political prisoners in droves. (That regime is, of course, secretive about this; as a result, estimates of the number of those executed vary widely, from a low of a few hundred to a high of over 30,000.)

If you think a one-party state, suppression of civil liberties, government control of the media, suppression of independent unions, replacement of capitalist bosses by “Communist” bosses, secret police, prisons, executions, a network of neighborhood informers, militarism, and a personality cult are a good tradeoff for the Cuban people in exchange for good health care, free higher education, and a guaranteed low-paying job, by all means support the Cuban dictatorship–and support a vanguard party here.

But if you want individual freedom, democratic control of communities and workplaces, voluntary cooperation instead of coercion, and equality in place of domination and submission, vanguard parties are an absolutely terrible idea. On a personal level, they’re a bottomless pit of self-sacrifice, and on a societal level their results are invariably catastrophic.
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Over the coming weeks we’ll look at other possible means of social change, from the worse than useless to those that show real promise. They’ll include personal lifestyle/consumption changes, urban guerrillaism, traditional street demonstrations, educational work, utopian communities, union organizing, public space occupations, housing occupations, and workplace occupations.