Revolutions And Rose-Tinted Spectacles

From People And Nature, in a guest post, Anti-War points to the history of radical intellectuals embracing “revolutionary” regimes, and cautions against repeating those mistakes today

In the second year of the Great Leap Forward famine – in which perhaps 30 million died – Herbert Read visited China on an official delegation. Read’s acceptance of a knighthood for his literary achievements had already discredited him amongst many anarchists. But, at the time of his visit in 1959, he was still the most prominent anarchist in Britain and his published writings had considerable influence on, amongst others, Murray Bookchin.[1]

Herbert Read
Read’s “Letters from China” show how easy it is for a radical intellectual to get it completely wrong. The nearest comparable episode was in 1967 when Noam Chomsky used phrases such as ‘mutual aid’, ‘popular control’ and ‘nonviolence’ while referring to Mao’s collectivisation policies. (Later, in 1977-79, Chomsky was also reluctant to acknowledge the full horror of Pol Pot’s version of these policies. See “Chomsky on Cambodia” and here and here.)

These extracts are a timely reminder to be sceptical of any account that claims that the new revolutionary society is being constructed outside of a global working class revolution:

Extracts from Herbert Read’s “Letters from China”, 1959

Extracts from Herbert Read’s “Letters from China”, 1959
The afternoon was devoted to the Forbidden City [in Peking]. … Everywhere the people are wandering around, free & happy. Delightful children, amused to see foreigners. There is an extraordinary air of happy-go-lucky contentment everywhere, but everyone is working (there is no unemployment, but a shortage of workers). …

[The Chinese] are extremely moral, in fact puritanical. Crime has, apart from occasional “crimes of passion”, practically disappeared. Each street has a committee which settles all disputes, and there are women’s associations that look after the morals of the inhabitants. Theft, which used to be frequent, is now almost unknown. … Food is plentiful & cheap.

To-day began with the most interesting event so far – a visit to an agricultural commune. These communes have come into existence spontaneously during the past 12 months (previously there were various types of collectives, where work & implements were only partly shared). There are now 24,000 of them, covering practically the whole country & having 450 million members. It is my idea of anarchism come into being, in every detail & practice.

The commune is divided into five brigades – we were in the Peace Bridge brigade & had then to listen to all the statistics for the brigade. Then a description of how it all works, most interesting – but the most important fact is that these communes are autonomous, which makes them anarchist from my point of view; and they are successful – Production has gone up by leaps & bounds, earnings of workers have doubled, schools & clinics have been provided (33 doctors in this one commune – ten years ago there was none). Many other improvements.

But everywhere there was pride in their achievements & a feeling that the wicked landlords had gone forever. I forgot to ask what had happened to their wicked landlord – no doubt he was in charge of one of the five piggeries. All this sound dull, but I found it fascinating – a dream come true. …

I wish you could see what is going on here socially & economically – it is the biggest & most successful revolution in history, & very inspiring. We spent this morning at Peking University & there too (in education) they have there own completely convincing methods. …
I remarked to the interpreter that I had not seen a policeman, & he answered as I expected, that they were not needed since the Liberation.

There is still a lot of poverty, though the average income [increased] fourfold since the liberation – from £15 a year in 1949 to £65 now – but now they also get free food (for which they pay 18/- a month). Again much evidence of the moral revolution – as the [commune] Chairman said, in the past much fighting, quarrelling, selfishness, now ease of mind, poetry & song. … 

All these communes are virtually self-supporting – the only things they need to get from outside are heavy machinery like tractors & perhaps coal & minerals like cobalt. It is the complete decentralization of industry advocated by Kropotkin in Fields, Factories & Workshops. …&nbsp

I warn some of them [about the technological destruction of natural beauty], but they smile & say it will be different with us – our workers will be educated, they will want beauty & leisure & we shall not repeat the mistakes of the capitalist world. You get the same answers everywhere, & it is not indoctrination, but a faith that moves mountains. … 

There are slogans & posters everywhere, and party literature in every hotel lounge: but like the professor this afternoon, however firm their faith, they are willing to discuss it in a free & friendly manner. … (From A Tribute to Herbert Read, 1893-1968, pp. 44-49, emphases added in italics.)

Here are some other accounts inspired by visits to various “socialist” regimes:

Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution

– in which Serge, a former anarchist exiled in Russia, defends the Bolshevik Party, saying the party “must know how to stand firm sometimes against the masses” and “to bring dissent to obey”.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb, The Truth about Soviet Russia

– This pamphlet summarises the book, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, which was inspired by a visit to the USSR during the devastating Ukrainian famine. In the pamphlet, these influential intellectuals overlook the famine while claiming that “Stalin is not a dictator” and that the USSR is “not only a political but an industrial democracy”.

Image from “Khmer Rouge female fighters”, a propaganda film by the Pol Pot regime

A 2015 poster

Simone De Beauvoir, The Long March

– in which De Beauvoir claims of Mao that “the power he exercises is no more dictatorial than, for example, Roosevelt’s was”. De Beauvoir visited China with Jean Paul Sartre, who, after his earlier visit to the USSR, had concluded that “the Soviet citizen has, in my opinion, complete freedom of criticism”.

A Maoist newspaper from the 1970s marvelling at Pol Pot’s achievements

Paul M.Sweezy, Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution

– in which Sweezy says that there is no sort of “totalitarian dictatorship” or dogmatic “line or ideology” in Cuba.

Joan Robinson, “The Korean Miracle”

– in which the influential Keynesian economist says that Kim Il Sung “seems to function as a messiah rather than a dictator”.

“Statement from Black Panther Delegates to North Korea”

– in which North Korea is described as a ‘paradise’.

Noam Chomsky, “In North Vietnam”

– in which Chomsky says ‘there appears to be high degree of democratic participation at the village and regional levels.’

Dan Burstein, “Exclusive Eyewitness Report from Kampuchea”

– in which Burstein says he saw “not a single sign of coercion” in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. In another article he wrote that a “very broad democracy exists in the cooperatives”.

The Black Panther Party newspaper that lauded North Korea as a paradise

Michel Foucault, “What are the Iranians Dreaming about?”

– in which Foucault says that “by Islamic government, nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control”. Foucault also seemed to believe that under such an Islamic government, “between men and women there will not be inequality with respect to rights”.

Alex Mitchell, Come the Revolution

– This book includes an account of several Workers Revolutionary Party trips to Libya to obtain funding from Gaddafi’s “revolutionary” regime.

Tariq Ali, Revolution from Above

– in which Ali recounts how he tried to convince Piotr Suida, a survivor of the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre, to join the Russian Communist Party. Ali dedicated his book to the Moscow Party leader, Boris Yeltsin, in the hope that the Party leadership would revive Soviet socialism.

Michael Albert, Venezuela’s Path

– in which Chomsky’s colleague, Michael Albert, praises Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution for a “vision that outstrips what any other revolutionary project since the Spanish anarchists has held forth”. In 1980, Albert was similarly naive about China’s Maoists, claiming that they may have genuinely wanted “greater worker and peasant power”. (For different views on Chavez, see: “The Revolution Delayed” and “Dead Left”.)

David Graeber, “No. This is a Genuine Revolution”

– in which Graeber explains that the Rojavan “security forces are answerable to bottom-up structures” and that they intend to “ultimately [to] … eliminate police”. See also his “I Appreciate and Agree with Ocalan” interview.

Janet Biehl, “Impressions of Rojava: a Report from the Revolution”

– in which Biehl says that “women are to this revolution what the proletariat was to Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the past century” and that although “images of Abdullah Ocalan are everywhere”, there is nothing “Orwellian” about this. (For a variety of views on Rojava, see the “Rojava Revolution Reading Guide”.)

It may seem unfair to include anti-Stalinists like Chomsky and Graeber in the same list as those who had real illusions in Stalinism and Maoism. But critical thinking is essential for working out how to make a revolution that does succeed. It is therefore important to show how a neglect of critical thinking can affect any of us. 27 July 2015

First published on Libcom here

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[1] See D. Goodway, Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow


  1. This is an excellent article, the detail is fantastic. There is a lesson here for every Republican anti-GFA group here too.

  2. People consistently overestimate connections between power and ideology. An example of this would be Foucault's misplaced optimism regarding the Iranian revolution. Of course the clerics were going to grab dictatorial power, if they could. They owed their dominant positions within their own (religious) groups to their "ideology"; the "ideology" served their pre-eminence, not the other way round.

    Some people just want to be leaders. If the Russian revolution had never happened, would Stalin have risen to become patriarch of the Orthodox church (the highest position attainable by a non-royal)? Stalin trained to be a priest, remember. This intriguing counter-factual is raised in Niall Ferguson's book Virtual History.

    Ideology and power... Herbert Read, an "anarchist" who accepts a knighthood from the British monarchy... god alfuckingmighty...

    In our own time, we see Labour Party knights and baronesses, sitting in the House of Lords, each depriving the people of 300 quid a day, plus whatever they can pick up on the side...

    Ideology and power... here in Scotland one feels entitled to wonder if Tommy Sheridan actually believed in anything.

    Across the water, you've got Gerry Adams. Nae luck, as we say here.

  3. What would the lesson be Daithi? If its the pitfalls of socialism, then I think that's been over documented. What's bringing untold misery to billions today is the consequences of elitist capitialism. Socialist governments were tyrannical but are no longer relevant, therefore no longer a danger. We should concentrate on the problems that currently face us. I don't see the point in highlighting the horrors of past regimes when we have plenty to deal with the current structure.

  4. David, no. The issue is the transition to these types of governments, after the overthrow of the old regimes. You say Socialist governments are no longer relevant, glad we agree. So why do Irishmen still devote resources to establishing one? (PS im not gonna get into a Capitalism-Socialism debate-I have a hangover...)

  5. Daithi,
    I think it's just a lack of options. When capitialism has a negative effect on people's lives we erroneously put our faith in the socialist side of the establishment. It wouldn't be Sunday without a hangover. This is probably a question for another day but do you think it's possible to have a system without a centralised, monopolised, centre? Do you think the lust for power is part of our nature or do you believe it is indoctrination we can bypass? Just curious.

  6. Thanks for the link Daithi.
    What I meant though was society as a whole. One c.e.o well meaning as he may be, isn't going to change things with a radical approach. The thing is socialism is dead in western europe so we have capitalism which is falling people. Where do we go from here? The current system left unchecked will continue to wreak havoc. It is ok saying socialism failed everywhere so it will fail here too. The point is something has to give and until we can achieve an alternative people will continue to go down the left right paradigm road and we go nowhere.