Jorge Semprun on Marx’s legacy …

In 1937, when the first German prisoners were assembled on the Ettersberg to cut down the beech forest, the system of the corrective labor camps, the Gulag, in other words, the great hurricane of that terrible year, was about to be unleashed on the USSR.

There have been different stages of the terror in the USSR. Certain thresholds were crossed before the terror reached its heights under Stalin. The year 1937 is undoubtedly one of those thresholds.

Shalamov’s book, which I was reading yesterday — I mean, the day before the day that I am now reconstituting through writing, that day in 1969, in London, when I suddenly found myself opposite a building where Karl Marx had once lived, which gave rise to this apparent digression — the chapter in Kolyma Tales that I was reading yesterday, and whose title was ‘How It All Began,’ deals specifically with the threshold crossed in 1937 in the historical world of the terror, in the very history of the Gulag.

‘In the whole of 1937,’ Varlam Shalamov writes, ‘two men, out of an official work force of two to three thousand, one prisoner and one free man, met their death in the Partisan mine (one of the mines in the Kolyma zone). They were buried side by side, under a tumulus. Two vague obelisks — a slightly smaller one for the prisoner — were erected over their graves … In 1938, an entire brigade worked permanently digging graves.’ For the whirlwind struck the Kolyma camps, and the whole of Soviet society, at the end of 1937. On orders from Colonel Garanin, who was eventually shot as a ‘Japanese spy,’ just as his master, Yezhov, who replaced Yagoda (also shot) as head of the NKVD, was eventually to be shot, and replaced by Beria, who, in turn … Colonel Garanin, as I was saying, unleashed over the Dalstroy, the concentration-camp zone of Kolyma, the insane whirlwind of 1937.

On orders from Colonel Garanin, the prisoners in the camps of the Great North were shot in the thousands. They were shot for ‘counter-revolutionary agitation.’ And what exactly does counterrevolutionary agitation consist of in a Gulag camp? Varlam Shalamov tells us: ‘To say aloud that the work was hard, to murmur the most innocent remark about Stalin, to remain silent when the crowd of prisoners bawled out: ‘Long live Stalin!” … shot! Silence is agitation.’ One was shot ‘for committing an outrage against a member of the guard.’ One was shot for ‘refusing to work.’ One was shot ‘for stealing metal.’ But, says, Shalamov, ‘the ultimate offense, the one for which prisoners were shot in waves, was for not meeting the norms. This crime took entire brigades into a common grave. The authorities provided the theoretical basis for this strict regime: throughout the country the five-year plan was broken down into precise figures for every factory, for every work team. At Kolyma, requirements were drawn up for each placer, each barrow, each pick. The five-year plan was law! Not to carry out the plan was a counterrevolutionary crime! Those who failed to carry out the plan were soon got rid of!’

The Plan, then, the tangible proof, it was said, of the superiority of Soviet society, the Plan that made it possible to avoid the crises and anarchy of capitalist production, the Plan, then, an almost mystical notion, responsible not only in civil society, so to speak, but also in that quite uncivil case of a despotism of unremitting labor — because it bound the worker to his place of work, whether this was a factory or a penal colony — the Plan was simultaneously the cause of a refined doubling of terror within the Gulag camps themselves. The Plan was as lethal as Colonel Garanin. In fact, you couldn’t have one without the other.

But, Shalamov tells us, ‘the eternally frozen stone and soil of the merzlota rejects corpses. The rock has to be dynamited, hacked away. Digging graves and digging for gold required the same techniques, the same tools, the same equipment, the same workers. An entire brigade would devote its days to cutting out graves, or rather ditches, where the anonymous corpses would be thrown fraternally together … The corpses were piled up, completely stripped, after their gold teeth had been broken off and recorded on the burial document. Bodies and stone, mixed together, were poured into the ditch, but the earth refused the dead, incorruptible and condemned to eternity in the perpetually frozen earth of the Great North …’

Yesterday, when I read those lines — that is, not yesterday, but the day before that spring ten years ago in London — when I read those lines yesterday, that image burned itself into my eyes: the image of those thousands of stripped corpses, intact, trapped in the ice of eternity in the mass graves of the Great North. Graves that were the construction sites of the new man, let us not forget!

In Moscow, at the Mausoleum at Red Square, incredible, credulous crowds continue to file past the incorruptible corpse of Lenin. I even visited the mausoleum myself once, in 1958. At that time, Stalin’s mummy kept Vladimir Ilyich company. Two years before, during a secret session of the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Party, Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev set fire to the idol, which, like all his peers, he had worshipped and venerated. And in 1960, in Bucharest, Khrushchev suggested to Peng Chen that Stalin’s bloody mummy be taken to China. It was finally removed from the mausoleum after the Twenty-second Congress of the Soviet Party. But in the summer of 1958, Stalin was still in his red marble tomb beside Lenin. I can testify to that. I saw them both. At peace, intact, incorruptible: all they lacked was the power of speech. But, fortunately, they did not have the power of speech. They just lay there, the two of them, silent, lit up like fish in an aquarium, protected by members of the Guards, standing motionless like bronze statues.

Ten years later, in London, after reading that passage in Varlam Shalamov’s book, I remembered the tomb in Red Square. It occurred to me that the true mausoleum of the revolution was to be found in the Great North, in Kolyma. Galleries might be dug through the charnel houses — the construction sites — of socialism. People would file past the thousands of naked, incorruptible corpses of prisoners frozen in the ice of eternal death. There would be no guards; those dead would not need guards. There would be no music, either, no solemn funeral marches playing in the background. There would be nothing but silence. At the end of the labyrinth of galleries, in a subterranean amphitheater dug out of the ice of a common ditch, surrounded on all sides by the blind gazes of the victims, learned meetings might be organized to discuss the consequences of the ‘Stalinist deviation,’ with a representative sprinkling of distinguished Western Marxists in attendance.

And yet the Russian camps are not Marxist, in the sense that the German camps were Nazi. There is a historical immediacy, a total transparency between Nazi theory and its repressive practice. Indeed, Hitler seized power through ideological mobilization of the masses and thanks to universal suffrage, in the name of a theory about which no one could be in any doubt. He himself put his ideas into practice, reconstructing German reality in accordance with them. The situation of Karl Marx, vis-à-vis the history of the twentieth century, even that made in his name, is radically different. That is obvious enough. In fact, a large segment of the opponents of the Bolsheviks, at the time of the October Revolution, claimed allegiance to Marx no less than did the Bolsheviks themselves: it was in the name of Marxism that not only the Mensheviks, but also the theoreticians of the German ultra-left criticized the authoritarianism and terror, the ideological monolithism and social inequality that spread over the USSR after the October victory.

The Russian camps are not, therefore, in an immediate, unequivocal way, Marxist camps. Nor are they simply Stalinist. They are Bolshevik camps. The Gulag is the direct, unequivocal product of Bolshevism.

However, one can go on a little further and locate in Marxist theory the crack through which the barbaric excesses of Correct Thought — which produces the corrective-labor camps — were to flood, the madness of the One, the lethal, frozen dialectic of the Great Helmsmen.

On March 5, 1852, Karl Marx wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer, who published in New York Die Revolution, a periodical of uncertain frequency, because of financial difficulties, like most of the socialist journals of the time. It was for Weydemeyer’s journal that Marx was finishing, in those rainy days at the end of the London winter, his articles on the Eighteenth Brumaire, which were to appear in an issue of Die Revolution under the title slightly altered by Weydemeyer — Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon, instead of Bonaparte — published at the Deutsche Vereins-Buchhandlung von Schmidt und Helmich, at 191 William Street.

So, on that March day in 1852, Karl Marx was writing to Weydemeyer. Two days before, he had received five pounds sent him by Frederick Engels, from Manchester. The Marx family must have eaten more or less their fill that week, after paying off their most pressing debts to the grocer and doctor. Now Karl Marx glanced out of the window of his flat. He looked absent-mindedly over at the narrow doorway of the building across the street. He saw nothing of particular interest. Indeed, there wasn’t anything of particular interest at that time: the film company had not yet moved in. He went down to sit at his desk. In his almost indecipherable writing, he wrote the date at the top right-hand corner of the sheet of paper. Under the date, he added his address, 28 Dean Street, Soho, London.

It was in this letter to Joseph Weydemeyer that Marx explained his own contribution to the theory of classes and of the class struggle. After admitting that bourgeois historians had already described the historical development of this class struggle, and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of classes, Marx went on to explain what was new in his contribution: was ich neu tat. ‘What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.’

This is an extremely well-known passage, one that has been interpreted this way and that, which generations of learned commentators have dissected, which brilliant polemicists have thrown in one another’s faces for over a century. And yet one can still come back to it. It still provides matter for reflection. One can still find something new in it: etwas Neues.

What, then, is the contribution that Marx declares he has made in this theory, at the concrete level of history and of the class struggles that make history? It is to have shown (or demonstrated: Marx uses the verb nachweisen, which may be interpreted in both senses; but in both senses it is used wrongly by Marx, who never showed or demonstrated what he advanced, as we shall see) a certain number of points.

Let us leave to one side the first, that concerning the historicity of the very existence of classes. This question belongs to a philosophy of history with which I am not concerned for the moment. The idea that mankind, in order to pass from a classless society, to that of primitive Communism, to another society of the same kind, but in a developed form, swimming in the butter of abundance, is destined to go through a long historical purgatory of ruthless, indecisive class struggles — always producing, moreover, real effects different from those that Marxist theoreticians, beginning in this case with Marx himself, had foreseen — such an idea leaves me completely cold. It no longer excites anybody, the idea that there was once, and that therefore there will be again, in the depths of history, ideal idyllic societies, communities without states. I am well aware that to set this idea, expressed concisely enough in Marx’s first point, to one side is somewhat arbitrary. I am well aware that the sub-Hegelian philosophy of history that underlies the idea contained in Marx’s first point also underlies the other two points. But one may, nevertheless, for purely methodological reasons, exclude this first point from our present analysis, temporarily bracket it out.

Whatever one may think, therefore, of the question of the historicity, of the relativity of classes, it is easy to see that the next two points listed by Marx do not belong to historical science — if science it be — but to prediction. Or even to prophetic teaching. That the class struggle should necessarily lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat is no more than a hypothesis, perhaps a pious wish. But neither the hypothesis nor the pious wish has been verified or fulfilled anywhere by real history. The dictatorship of the proletariat, in the Marxist sense, has never existed anywhere. A century after Marx’s letter to Weydemeyer, it still hasn’t come about.

At this point, of course, I can hear the indignant cries from the distinguished Marxists at the back of the hall. (There are only two or three fools in the whole world who haven’t realized that when one writes, one always puts oneself on public display, whether one likes it or not. And if one is putting oneself on public display, one can imagine the hall in which it takes place.)

The Marxists all squawk at once.

‘What about the Paris Commune?’ someone yells out. I was waiting for that one. In a tone suggesting that nothing more is to be said on that matter, someone quotes Frederick Engels: ‘Well, gentlemen, do you want to know what a dictatorship is like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Well, gentlemen, look at the Paris Commune, but look at it carefully. You will see some very fascinating, very instructive things, but you will never see the dictatorship of the proletariat. Forget Engels and the high-flown words with which, twenty years after the events, he ends his introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, forget Engels’s literary fabulations, come back to the harsh truths of history, and you will not find the dictatorship of the proletariat. Read the writings of the period, beginning, of course, with the contemporary accounts of the sessions of the Commune itself, and you will see that the attempted coup of the Paris Communards, at once grandiose and pitiful, heroic and petty, seeped in a just vision of society and shot through with the most confused ideologies, has got nothing to do with the dictatorship of proletariat.

But I am not allowed to continue my demonstration (Nachweisung, Marx would say: yet I have the advantage over him of speaking with my back to history, of trying to explain it; I have no need to fantasize, and can therefore demonstrate, or show, what history has demonstrated). I am interrupted: voices rise up on all sides.

Very well, I shall continue at another time, perhaps in another place. But above the din of Marxist voices, I shall say just a few words, even if I have to raise my voice, on Marx’s third point, namely, that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a mere transition — a state that would be already an antistate — toward a classless society, toward the suppression of all classes.

Here, too, we are confronted with a mere postulate: a petitio principii. Real history has demonstrated — nachgewiesen — quite the contrary. It has shown the continual, implacable reinforcement of the state, the brutal exacerbation of the struggle between the classes, which not only have not been suppressed, but, on the contrary, have crystallized still further in their polarization. Beside the veritable civil war unleashed against the peasantry in the USSR in the early 1930’s, the class struggles in the West are gala dinners. Compared with the stratification of social privileges in the USSR — functional privileges, certainly, bound up with the status and not, or not necessarily, with the individual — real social inequality, that is to say, relative to the national product and to its distribution, is in the West nothing but a fairy tale.

In brief, what Marx claims is new in his contribution to the theory of classes and of the struggle between them has nothing theoretical about it, nothing that throws light on reality and enables one to act on it. It is no more than prediction, wishful thinking, an expression that must have been used quite often at 28 Dean Street.

And it is here, on this precise point of the Marxist theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat as an inevitable transition towards classless society, that the lethal madness of Bolshevism took root and nourished the terror. It was in accordance with these few points dryly listed by Marx one day in 1852 — listed, moreover, as if they were self-evident — that all the Great Helmsmen have begun to think — and, worse still, to dream at night — as if inside the heads of the proletarians. It was in the name of this historic mission of the proletariat that they have been crushed, deported, dispersed, through labor — free or forced, but always corrective — millions of proletarians.

An idea underlies these points — these theoretical novelties — which Marx pedantically enumerates: the idea of the existence of a universal class that will be the dissolution of all classes; a class that cannot be emancipated without emancipati[ng] itself from all other classes of society and without, consequently, emancipating them all. One might have recognized the trembling voice of the young Marx announcing, in 1843, in an essay that he wrote, not on Dean Street, but on the Rue Vaneau in Paris, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’; the epiphany of the proletariat. But this universal class does not exist. The lesson of the hundred years that separate us from Marx is, if nothing else, that the modern proletariat is not this class. To continue to maintain this theoretical fiction has enormous practical consequences, for it paves the way for the parties of the proletariat, the leaders of the proletariat, the corrective labor camps of the proletariat: that is to say, it paves the way for those who, in the silence of the gagged proletariat, speak in its name, in the name of its supposed universal mission, and speak loud and clear (to say the least!).

So the first task of the new revolutionary party that would not speak in the name of the proletariat, but would regard itself only as a temporary structure, constantly disintegrating and being reconstructed, as a focus of receptivity and awareness which would give organic weight, material strength, to the voice of the proletariat — its first task would be that of re-establishing the theoretical truth, with all the consequences that this involves, about the nonexistence of a universal class.

But this blind spot in Marx’s theory, through which it is linked to the aberrational realities of the twentieth century, is also its blinding spot: the focal point at which the entire grandiose illusion of the revolution shines. Without this false notion of a universal class, Marxism would not have become the material force that it has been, that it still partly is, profoundly transforming the world, if only to make it even more intolerable. Without this blinding, we would not have become Marxists. We would not have become Marxists simply to demonstrate the mechanisms of the production of surplus value, or to reveal the fetishisms of mercantile society, an area in which Marxism is irreplaceable. We would have become teachers. It was the deep-seated madness of Marxism, conceived as a theory for universal revolutionary practice, that gave meaning to our lives. To mine, in any case. As a result, there is no longer any meaning in my life. I live without meaning.

But this is no doubt normal enough. In any case, isn’t it dialectical?

Jorge Semprun, What A Beautiful Sunday!, Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan, Abacus, London, 1984. Originally published in French under the title Quel beau dimanche! in 1980 by Editions Grasset et Fasquelle.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2014 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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