Reflections on Vasily Grossman’s, ‘Everything Flows’

vasily-grossman-in-german-006

After the article we posted a couple of weeks ago: ’Some experiences of how not to organise and a more useful one’ [1] we publish another beautiful piece of writing from the same comrade. This time it is about his reflections after reading Vasily Grossman’s novel, ‘Everything Flows’. For us the conversation with the comrade and his friends, who are former members of the Trotskyite WRP, come at a peculiar point in time. While the comrades are still healing their wounds from their time in a ‘vanguard organisation’ and question the role of organisation fundamentally, we come out of six years of relatively isolated and informally organised political practice with a strong urge to form a political organisation that allows us to debate and coordinate practice with comrades in the UK and beyond.These countercurrents are fruitful. For example, in this text the comrade writes that Luxemburg’s shortcoming was that she gave up her initial mistrust of the vanguard party after the ‘success’ of the Russian Revolution. We, in contrast, would currently emphasise that her mistake was that she didn’t leave the SPD earlier on to form a revolutionary organisation – based not on the Bolshevik model of Czarist Russia, but according to the more advanced class composition in Germany at the time. Another example would be that while the comrades move away from Trotskyism for valid reasons, we recently started to appreciate Trotsky’s writings on ‘uneven and combined development’ [2], while remaining critical of his politics during the Revolution. 

———

I have just finished reading Vasily Grossman’s unfinished novel, ‘Everything Flows’ and it made a deep impact on me. It’s hard to say whether this is just from the contents of the one book, or from the accumulation of ideas from reading most of his previous work, (plus the work of many others, Cliff Slaughter especially). But one way or another, ‘Everything Flows’ slams up against fifty years of my own prejudices and dogma.

Grossman was still working on this book when he died. His great work, ‘Life and Fate’ had been seized by the Soviet secret police and Grossman lived the last few years of his life aware that many people were turning their backs on him – the writer of subversive thoughts, and a Jew. The writer Sholokhov was dismayed that the story of Stalingrad was told by a Jew.

The ‘story’ of ‘Everything Flows’ is almost nothing: in the 1950’s a man arrives in Moscow after 29 years in the Gulags, his ‘case’ having been reviewed and no evidence found. He meets his cousin who is now a prosperous man, then he stands outside the door of the woman who loved him 29 years ago, gets a factory job, briefly finds new love with his landlady who dies from cancer. And that’s it. But Grossman uses this skeleton on which to hang all his thoughts of Russian and Soviet history.

At the end of the novel the main character returns to the Ukrainian Jewish village he grew up in to look for his parents house. There is nothing there. He looks back on his life: 

“He had achieved nothing. He would leave behind him no books, no paintings, no discoveries. He had created no school of thought, no political party, and he had no disciples. Why had life been so hard? He had not preached, he had not taught; he had simply remained what he had been since birth – a human being.”

This is really Grossman’s epitaph for himself. As he approached death, all Grossman could see was that he had managed to retain his humanity. In fact he did vastly more than that. He left his testimony, which is unique. A critique of Soviet history from a man who shared the Revolution’s claimed ideals, who never lost his internationalism and socialism but who wrote the most terrible indictment of what the Revolution actually created.

All his later writings, following Stalin’s death, deal with the reign of terror, the arbitrary arrests, executions, slave labour, mass famines and the process by which people were turned into scared, isolated individuals, trying to save their own skins by false testimony, by informing, by murder and acts of inhumanity.

Now for those of us who spent our lives in the Trotskyist movement, none of this is ‘news’ or, at least, it ought not to have been. But then why do his books shock me so much? I had the same shock in the 1990’s when I met an old socialist railway worker in Prague. He fought in the resistance in WWII but got expelled from the Communist Party for opposing the show trials of socialists in the 50’s. He told me ‘for a socialist, living under the USSR was the same as living under the Nazis.’ Again why did this shock me – a Trotskyist?

Soviet tyranny was ‘known’ to us but I now think known only in a partial way. Known as facts to add to a theory, not know in the way that Grossman actually experienced it: as this utter destruction of human beings, real people, the atomisation of the working class. The proof of this ‘partial’ understanding came as the Soviet Union collapsed. I, and many other people on the left, thought that, freed from their state prison, the soviet working class would now rise up. Yes, the miners and others came onto the scene but look how easily their new leaders were bought off, look how easily the vultures swept down to convert state property into their private fortunes. We somehow imagined that, after decades of dictatorship, the working class had survived, repressed but intact. We never understood the toll of terror and slavery, not just on the body but on the mind.

I remember a meeting in London in the 1990’s when a comrade from Moscow was present. There was a discussion about the nature of the Soviet State. The British contingent was sticking to their old formula of ‘a degenerated workers’ state’, but the Russian would have none of it. He would not accept that you could use the word ‘worker’ in any form that linked it to the Soviet State. I now think he was right but at the time I argued against him, thinking that I was standing firm in the defence of the October Revolution.

Of course, if I had read Grossman back in the Workers Revolutionary Party days I would have not seen what I see now. I would have liked those bits which corroborated my views and not seen or disliked the rest. We all lived a sect-like existence with anything that threatened the ideology, dismissed and scorned.

But reading Grossman’s novels with eyes freed from dogma, how could anyone have thought to use the word ‘worker’ in their description of a state that presided over decades of violent, anti-working class tyranny?

But no, we had to stick to Trotsky’s defence of the Russian Revolution up to Lenin’s death and his defence of everything the ‘workers’ state’ had done up to that point.

After Gerry Healy (the WRP leader) was expelled, I began to read all of Victor Serge’s writings. I found his description of the Revolution far more satisfactory than Trotsky’s. For Serge the Revolution opened up the possibility of change but that in the Revolution, in the Russian working class, in the Bolshevik party everything was present; the great longing for freedom and socialism but also all the worse aspects of the past. There was no separate arena of ‘good’. The question was what would come to dominate: the freeing of human society, or the restoration of all that was rotten in the existing world? This battle was to be found above all inside the Communist Party and it was being fought all the way through, not just after Lenin’s death as Trotsky would have it.

Grossman, in ‘Everything Flows’, writes at length about Lenin and he shares Serge’s outlook. And more than Serge, he steps back and takes a long view of Russian history. Serfdom had only been abolished a few decades before the Revolution. Russian feudalism had for centuries been a bastion of barbaric slavery. Then, for a brief period, the laws of slavery were lifted. A vast migration of ex-serfs began to take place. Industrialisation began in the cities, vast factories were created. The post-1917 state reimposed slavery, not just for the peasantry but for the working class as well, and with all the ruthless efficiency that a modern state machine could muster.

I read: “Silence falls once more. All three are busy with their own thoughts. The soldiers are trying to force their minds to grasp what perhaps God alone can conceive of: the terrible expanses that lies between them and that land of freedom . Images more clear, precise, and terrifying are crowding into the vagrant’s head – courts of justice, dungeons for exiles and for convicts, prison barracks, weary halts along the road, the cold of winter, illness, the death of his companions- all rise vividly before him”

It could be Grossman describing the journey to Siberia but it is from Chekov in the 19th century. Where we saw the Revolution as the seismic break from the past, the beginning of the new world, Grossman sees both the break but, even more, the continuation of the past. The state created by the Revolution, from day one, is a continuation of the old state and becomes the force to destroy the Revolution and allow the old slave Russia to continue and to modernise. There was no workers’ democracy. ‘All power to the Soviets’ meant ‘all power to the party leadership’.

I have been wondering for a long time why so few women take part in the written ‘theoretical’ debate within the Marxist movement, despite the fact that millions of women have given their lifetime’s work to the movement. All the obvious answers apply. Having children and caring for them, cooking etc. But Grossman singles out a trait in Lenin which he finds fault with: 

“In his personal relationships – when he gave someone help, when he stayed the night with friends or went out for a walk with them – Lenin was always polite, sensitive and kind. Yet Lenin was always rude, harsh and implacable towards his political opponents. He never admitted the least possibility that they might be even partially right, that he might be partially wrong. It was never Lenin’s aim, in a dispute, to win his opponents over to his own views. He did not even truly address his opponents; the people for whom his words were intended were the witnesses to the dispute. Lenin’s aim was always to ridicule his opponents, to compromise him in the eyes of witnesses.”

Isn’t this the same atmosphere that has dominated the Marxist movement, particularly the Trotskyist movement? However, Lenin did not create this form of debate. Like so much within our movement, like the abuse of women, it is borrowed straight from the existing hierarchical, patriarchal society. It is the ‘expert’ putting down his junior to protect his status. Rosa Luxemburg was one of a few women who entered the hallowed ground of political theory and not only did she have to contend with the growing ranks of trade union and party bureaucrats within the Marxist movement, she also had to constantly put up with the inflated egos of all the ‘great’ Marxist men of the time who could only be ‘friends’ with people who agreed with them.

And I suspect that this has been a major factor in excluding women in the Marxist discussion. This kind of ‘debate’ has more to do with rutting stags than it does with trying to work together to develop an understanding of how human beings can escape from the inhuman tyranny of capital. Of course we need clarity of ideas, not some mishmash where everything is ok, but how to create a movement in which the differences are held together in a useful way, subordinated to trying to march forward together? I’ve only had a couple of glimpses of such a world. Firstly on the convoys to Bosnia, taking supplies to people under siege trying to defend multi-ethnic society. I remember being in the cab of a lorry with a young man, a member of Militant. In other lorries were people from across Europe, political activists, trade unionists, a Techno sound system with followers, Muslims, students etc. We were in a war zone. The Militant supporter asked me, “Now the WRP is gone do you think you will start a new party?” I replied, “The people on this convoy look more like a party than anything I have seen on the left.” “But most of them are not even socialists,” he protested. He didn’t get it. Another occasion is when I attended a meeting of ‘Castlemilk against Austerity’ , an umbrella group of campaigners on a council estate outside Glasgow who met regularly to discuss their various campaigns. A great diversity of people and ideas but held together by a common understanding that if anything was going to be done about problems people face it was only going to be done by themselves. 

It goes without saying that as long as people remain loyal to this or that sect then there is little that can be done. The sect replicates bourgeois society with its leaders and led by its gurus, experts and theoreticians and inevitably, it replicates the subordination of women and young people. The older male rules in thought and deed. Momentum is a good current example. Abandon thought all ye who enter here.

For Grossman, Stalin alone was not the grave-digger of the revolution. He merely perfected what had already been created, “Stalin united within him all the most ruthless traits of slave Russia.”

I remember a voice at a WRP meeting, post Healy, commenting on someone’s challenge to some orthodoxy, ‘Next you will be challenging Lenin.’ 

They might as well have said, ‘ Next you will be questioning the existence of God!’

So when we defended the Revolution and the Bolsheviks, what were we defending? Was it the hopes and dreams of the Russian workers who rose up, made enormous heroic sacrifices, started to become new people, tried to find a new way to relate to one another and to their activities? Or was our loyalty to what Grossman describes as ‘slave Russia’ – the ‘state’ (read ‘party’) with its authoritarianism, its violence, its industrialisation and ‘progress’, albeit now with a red star on its cap? I think it was much more to the latter.

When we look back at the English Civil War, or the French Revolution or the slave revolution in Haiti, we don’t judge the outcomes in terms of the success or failure of the theories of the main protagonists. We don’t blame the Levellers or Diggers for an inadequate perspective for not bringing about a true equality between people. No more do we say that those who proclaimed ‘liberty, fraternity, equality’ in France were at fault when the result was the rise of the new bourgeoisie. Were the slave leaders in Haiti at fault when their revolution led to Haiti becoming one of the poorest and most tyrannically ruled countries in the world?

Whatever the desires and dreams of the protagonists in these events may have been, what was really taking place was the advance of capital’s domination of all human activity. And they took place when capital’s power and scope for growth were great. Suddenly with the Russian Revolution, this way of critical examination vanishes. The path of history now is decided only by human will, the future of Russia is decided by the views of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. The socialist movement largely accepted the view that the early twentieth century was seeing the opening of the age of revolution. Capitalism had reached its high point and was increasingly plunging humanity into chaos. World wars, famines, fascism – all these seemed to corroborate this view. And if revolution was both needed and possible then the only thing stopping it was the thoughts in peoples’ heads.

A hundred years on we can look back and see that what the Bolsheviks ushered in, regardless of what they thought, was the way in which a backward Russia could accumulate capital and industrialise: by imposing discipline on the working class, long hours of work for little pay, slave labour, impossibility of union organisation, low living standards and a state free from any criticism or conflict with what is now called ‘civic society’.

China followed the same path. Indeed, Grossman says that, following the rise of the Soviet State, it was admired by people across Europe. Reading this I initially thought he was referring to the Communist Parties which worshipped it, but no, he meant the rising fascists of Italy and Germany. How to control the working class when conflict between the working class and capital becomes explosive. And common to all of them was intense nationalism and anti-Semitism.

Grossman does not turn his back on the revolution. Unlike many critics of Stalinism he does not equate the outcome with the revolution itself. In an essay called ‘Eternal Rest’, he muses on Moscow cemeteries and talks about how the early revolutionary period is reflected on tombstones:

“This period of Soviet life is reflected in the cemetery beside the Moscow crematorium. What a huge number of mixed marriages there were in those years! What a wonderful equality between different nationalities! What a plethora of German, Italian, French and English surnames! Some of the grave stones bear inscriptions in foreign languages. What a lot of Latvians, Jews and Armenians! What militant slogans on the gravestones. Here, in this cemetery it still seems possible to glimpse the flame of young Bolshevism- of a Bolshevism not yet nationalized and taken over by the State: a Bolshevism still imbued with the lyrical passions of youth, with the spirit of the internationale, with the sweet delirium of the Paris Commune, with the intoxicating songs of the Revolution.”

And this spirit was ultimately crushed not because of the ‘wrong’ ideas of Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin or any of the participants in the Revolution, but because capital still had immense room for the expansion of its domination over human society. It still had the room to overcome every obstacle put in its way by its constant opponent, the working class. When the revolutionary wave after WWI was crushed and when the domination of Stalinism helped subdue a similar wave after WWII, it allowed capital to enter – not its ’death throes’ – but its most massive expansion on a global scale with the mass production of cheap commodities to buy off the working class and the globalisation of capital’s realm.

Rosa Luxemburg, in the pre-1917 days, was strongly opposed to Lenin’s concept of the vanguard party and when the Bolsheviks seized power she worried that the idea of socialism would be discredited in the eyes of working people for decades to come. The ‘success’ of the Revolution made her partly change her mind and she urged the German workers to follow the Russian example. But her previous misgiving proved right. For much of the world, the ideas of socialism and communism became equated with totalitarianism. Years later, Communists of all types stood loyally in ‘defence of October’, trying desperately to avoid the obvious truth: that Soviet Russia, for the people who lived in it – was no different from Hitler’s Germany. 

In the Fourth International we justified everything the newly created Soviet State did. The restoration of the death penalty, the suppression of Kronstadt, the red terror, all justified on the basis that if these extreme measures were not taken then the White Guard would crush the Revolution. Victor Serge goes through many of these actions and describes how it was actually these actions and the justification of them, the growth of the ‘workers’ state within which the workers had no democratic say whatsoever, that was crushing the Revolution. The ‘revolutionary state’ ended up doing everything the Whites would have done and worse.

In ‘Life and Fate’ Grossman writes an imaginary letter from a Ukrainian Jewish woman to her son, writing as she is led into the gas chamber. I tried to read it but couldn’t and finished the book with the letter unread. It took me many months before I could bring myself to read it all through. It is too terrible.

‘Everything Flows’ is really Grossman’s letter to anyone who is able, not just to read it, but to hear it, from the people who had to endure life under Soviet rule. I could not have heard it until recently. Dogma would have prevented me from truly hearing the voice of the woman in ‘Everything Flows’, the landlady, who describes the deliberately created famine in which millions of people died, but who herself was an administrator of this state-made mass murder. 

I know that the ‘WRP me’ would have done what she did. My loyalty to the ‘party’ would have led me down a similar path. Grossman himself has to deal with his own ‘loyalty’. When Stalin chose to revive the virulent anti-Semitism of Czarist Russia, Grossman was called to put his name to a letter condemning a group of Jewish doctors who had supposedly tried to poison Stalin. All his later books try to understand why people betrayed their friends and workmates, why they turned their backs on friends, how people became monsters. And the answer is not to be found within the individual who is merely trying to survive, but in the nature of the society itself. The state needed slave labour, needed so much and so many to be sent every week to the gulags. And with this need, it then created the ‘lawful’ procedures to accomplish this. The anti-Semitism went along with resurgent nationalism, with the dehumanisation of whole groups of people and nations who were moved en-mass or exterminated. Grossman lived a life surrounded by the most appalling inhumanity. But he never lost his, and he also describes the way in which everyone caught up in the terror also tried, in whatever way, to remain human.

I don’t think it’s important to agree with all of Grossman’s analysis of Soviet history. His incredible legacy is that he managed to write about it in the way he did. How did he hang on to his humanity and to his solidarity with the hopes of the revolutionaries in the midst of what he lived through? Friends vanished, colleagues were executed, neighbours testified against one another, his wife was sent to the camps …his mother was murdered by the Nazis … on and on, and yet he writes so beautifully of human kindness, of solidarity and above all the human thirst for freedom. He writes of this desire for freedom in ways that in the past I would have thought of disparagingly as ‘liberal’, but his thirst for freedom is not just for individual freedom but for the freedom of everyone. How can one person be free if another is not? And is there such a huge gap between his ‘freedom’ and Marx’s description of a future society – ‘the free association of the producers?’

In the Workers Revolutionary Party we saw ourselves as following in the traditions of the Bolsheviks. We loathed the Communist Parties because we saw in them a movement that supported the Russian ruling elite who oppressed the Russian working class, who used the Communist Parties around the world, not to promote world revolution, but as bargaining chips in diplomacy between Russia and the capitalist governments of the world. In my day to day life in the factories, I fought against the Communist Party leaders as they always tried to cover up for the Trade Union bureaucracy or the Labour Party, always tried to restrain militancy. Even after the break up of the WRP I still regarded this gulf between ‘us’ and the Stalinists as fundamental.

Grossman has brought to a head the growing feeling that the differences between us – the Trotskyists and the Stalinists – were secondary and that the similarities were primary. We were born of a common parentage.

Our differences were apparently unbridgeable. We were for revolution, they were against. But what we had in common was that we both set out to control the workers movement, to direct its activities. It makes no difference that we believed we did everything for revolutionary purposes. The end result was the same; control, suppression of self-organisation, imposition of an external discipline and, above all, the introduction of our hierarchy, our mirror of bourgeois society. Both of our parties, so different in policies and rhetoric, were a microcosm of the very society it proclaimed it was going to overthrow.

Coming back to Grossman’s ‘freedom’ and Marx’s ‘free association of the producers’, there is nothing ‘liberal’ about this. It is what is needed to overcome humanity’s subordination to capital. And if we are to look into the ruins of the Russian Revolution, to dig through the appalling things we denounced and the appalling things we supported, back to the lives of the people Grossman describes in the revolutionary cemetery with their mixed marriages and Jewish inscriptions, their internationalism, then a fitting defence of their titanic struggle is to think about what kind of a ‘party’, or movement or organisation is needed for all those people who are fighting back against the degradations of human society. Surely, after all our experiences, the one thing that can be said for certain, and not many things can be at present, is that it has to begin to correspond in its own existence to incorporate the values, the methods to which we aspire – to the free association of the producers. No movement which continues to uphold the power of men over women, or upholds the power of the ‘expert’ over the young and inexperienced, which encourages the ‘leader’ and ‘led’ mentality can be of use. No movement of self appointed ‘revolutionaries’ which decides that it has the answer which others have to follow can possibly co-ordinate and expand the activities of millions of people around the world who, by trying to live normal lives, have to confront the limitations of capital’s control.

[1]

https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2020/04/01/some-experiences-of-how-not-to-organise-and-a-more-useful-one/

[2]

https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2020/04/07/revolutionary-working-class-strategy-for-the-21st-century-part-1/

One thought on “Reflections on Vasily Grossman’s, ‘Everything Flows’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s