In the Garden Where my Love Is, There I'm Going to Build a Well by Nick LeBlanc
A note on the cover image: A favorite sculpture of Vladimir Lenin, Hugo Rheinhold’s Affe mit Schädel depicts a chimpanzee considering a human skull while holding calipers in its foot and sitting atop a stack of books, including one labeled “Darwin.” Though it is similar in concept, it does in fact predate Rodin's The Thinker.
The book at his feet is open and an inscription can be seen, “eritis sicut deus,” a quote from Genesis 3:5 literally translating to “be like a god.” This is taken from the portion of the Bible when the serpent is tempting Eve (against god’s will) to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This implies that the piece can best be interpreted as a warning against pursuing rationalism in the absence of morality, or rather suggesting that good and evil cannot be truly known or told apart from one another.
The decision to have the chimpanzee holding the human’s skull while considering this is up to your interpretation of course...
In the Garden Where my Love Is, There I'm Going to Build a Well
After the Russian Civil War, WW1, and a period of drought and frost, in 1921 Russia was plunged into a famine. Millions were starving to death and pockets of anarchism and populism were rising up against Lenin’s communist state. In a reaction to this, Lenin signed into law a New Economic policy which replaced traditional requisition-based communism with a new form of state capitalism. A classic example of Russian state capitalism can be seen with a change in agricultural policy. Grain farmers were no longer forced to hand over their product to the state, which was the standard practice at the time. Instead, they were allowed to pay a new tax levied against them with their raw product and/or capital, giving them some room to keep the grain they produce and sell it locally. The NEP also included using a new standard currency and an attempt to attract foreign capital investors into Russia’s infrastructure.
Lenin saw state capitalism as a way to stimulate the economy after the difficulties of the civil war and the failings of his “War Communism,” hoping it would be the final bridge to fully establish a true socialism in Russia. In other words, he saw it as a temporary and necessary conceding of his socialist rhetoric to highly regulated capitalism primarily aimed at smaller community-based businesses, like the grain farmers. I should be clear that by temporary he meant it should last at least a few decades until a real socialist literacy could occur within the country.
Trotsky (a left winger) agreed with Lenin and fought for the state to reclaim all control over the economy, believing Russia could not survive if it controlled the output of goods. Stalin (a right winger), on the other hand, favored state capitalism and thought Russia should double down on capital investments and keep the stimulus moving with virtually no end in sight. It should be noted that after Stalin seized power he abandoned his proposal to continue state capitalism, instead instituting the first of his 5 year plans which established mass collectivism and caused the destruction of the kulak social class--he had used them as a scapegoat for certain agricultural failings, similar to what another demagogue a few countries away would do with German Jews and their failing economy. Doesn't it seem that dictators always have someone else to blame?
Stalin's first 5 year plan was constructed with unattainable goals which were changed willy-nilly to suit his political needs. This decision making led to famines that would cost millions of lives and further damage Russia’s global reputation, making for plenty of juicy material which Hitler and Germany would eventually twist up into anti-Russian propaganda.
Some would argue that Stalin’s haste to abandon state capitalism in the face of new social and economic challenges was one of the reasons for the eventual failure of the state after it had demonstrated substantial growth with Lenin’s instituting of the NEP. This may be the case, and because of this, as well as similar failings in other countries like South America, that we have never truly seen what a highly regulated evolution from state capitalism to true socialism could look like. In fact, we have never even seen what state capitalism looks like as it approaches the end of its efficacy. There has always been a dramatic political decision made that vastly alters the trajectory of a country before it can pass on into failure or socialism--this also says something about dictators, they seem to hate stability, hmmm...sound familiar? Because of this instability, we have only been subject to the meteoric rise and fall of many socialist countries, being forced to bear witness to the many casualties that accompany it, across all social classes.
Today, state capitalism is seen to be emerging in other countries which identify as socialist/communist—I say “identify” because in practice they may not actually be truly representative of their identification. Countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea are combining ruthless party rule with wild capitalism. This is leading to some serious problems. In DPRK, the state has hundreds of “free” markets where individuals sell things like home grown food and smuggled goods (usually from China). Apart from the public health issues this creates—refugees who have escaped the DPRK are found to have parasites in their gut that are common when human feces are used as fertilizer—another problem emerges, the state is allowed to focus a more-than-considerable amount of its resources on its own interests which, as we know, in unbalanced countries means massive military spending. This is how the DPRK can have people starving to death with no internet, telephone, or resources but still have the fourth largest military in the world.
My point in bringing this up is to demonstrate the weaknesses of a state capitalist system and to draw a line between Marx’s “late capitalism” and Lenin’s attempt to create it with the NEP. In a system such as this, the state becomes no longer responsible for providing necessities or services to their population as they are allowed to create it themselves within the tiny pockets free markets they allow to exist. Again, like the Russian grain farmers. This allows the country’s oligarchs (or the ruling class, ie those who own the businesses which the lower classes work at/consume through) to thrive within the system and stay in the pocket of the state, effectively creating a socialist system but only for those who engage in the global capitalist scheme (big money business like war and weaponry). In other words, the rich get to participate in the decisions the country makes, everyone else is fodder for exploitation and manipulation.
My point is that at the end of the day, this type of system keeps the proletariat--or the working class--in the position that it always has been, subject to the will of the oligarchs and the state’s ruling class. True socialism is governed by an engaged working populous making decisions in their best interest. Capitalism and forced state capitalism only creates more opportunity for systematic exploitation and repression. Lenin, to some degree, recognized this and would have attempted to transition his NEP into complete state capitalism if he had lived long enough, and if WW2 hadn’t come around and plunged Russia into Stalin’s (even more violent) version of Lenin’s “War Communism.”
This brings me to my home, the US of A. In studying Russia and state capitalist systems, I have come to understand the US as a prolonged version of state capitalism. There are many large businesses which are heavily regulated by the government—who mainly controls and deals in the interests of global capitalists and money markets, there are homeless people and folks who are starving to death even though our economy is “thriving." Though, "thriving" for WHO, I ask you to consider. Wealth inequality is at an all time high, the oligarchs allow pockets of small free markets to exist and act surprised when the consumers claim to need more assistance from the state (think here of the ‘Fight for $15”). The majority of voting citizens cast their ballot for one candidate, yet controlling forces in a state (influenced by money markets within each state, mind you) decide to elect someone else—remember this has happened twice now in 20 years.
From the little that I have come to understand through research and reading, it would appear to me that we truly are living in late-stage capitalism, and that we may be on the verge of seeing what happens when that state capitalist system can no longer provide the temporary stimulus that it promises (like Lenin’s NEP). It is starting to feel like the efficacy of the system is crumbling, something oppressed/repressed/depressed population in the US have known for a very long time now. The political system in the country has (so far) prevented a true dictator from making a completely irrational and impatient decision and plunging us into our own version of a 5 year plan (save for Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal,’ which is a whole other discussion for another day). But what kind of relief does that really provide when, as I said, you can't even trust the electoral college system to follow through on the will of the people?
I just fear that time is running out on this system, and the true intention of those who influence it (the oligarchs) is becoming clearer and clearer. It seems we are on the verge of being forced to make a decision about our democracy’s future or face the consequences of allowing the state capitalist system to slip into fascism. This is why I have come to identify as a socialist and spend a lot of my limited free time reading and researching as to what this actually means.
I believe in an administration who’s decisions are made by an engaged working class populous who all has stake in the game. I don’t believe that the wealth of the 1% should be legal. I don’t believe in imperialism or the oppression of other countries for the purpose of stealing their natural resources. What I’m trying to demonstrate is that there is a historical precedent for what happens when unstable leaders come into power during vulnerable economic times in countries which are on the verge of massive social changes.
Today in the US, I see an opportunity for a form of democratic socialism to take hold, but my deep personal fear is that opportunity may be seized by a sect of the 1% that would rather see a fascist system, or something closer to feudalism. A discussion of eliminating Medicare and Medicaid, transferring the type of food benefits that vulnerable populations receive, defunding public institutions, ignoring need in public schools, placing infrastructure management in the hands of private companies, all the while doubling down on investment of weaponry and other military spending...what does that sound like to you?
Well, to me it sounds like the state is abandoning us, forcing us to fend for ourselves with the tiny state capitalist markets they allow to exist, meanwhile dealing in a game of billions on global capitalist level. Like I said, there’s a precedent for it. My hope is maybe that we can find the socialist literacy Lenin desired for his people to achieve in order to establish a socialist solution to the state capitalist problem. Because, for my money (wink-wink), the alternative is a horror show.
But what does that "literacy" really mean?
I took the title for this piece from a Soviet propaganda cartoon film from 1939 called "War Chronicles" in English and "Boyevyye stranitsy" in Russian. It is a song that is sung during a montage where soldiers are returning home from fending off invaders and challengers to Soviet rule during the Revolution. Apart from the poetic nature of the lyric, I think it does a good job of showing the desired attitude of the Russian people during the post war restructuring period (I say "desired" because, after all, this is propaganda and propaganda is used as a tool to show you how you are supposed to feel). The song is imploring soldiers to return home after fighting hard, and telling them to support the thing which provides sustenance for them (the state, or in this metaphor, the garden) by building or investing in something which in turn sustains it (ie, building a well to collect water to feed the garden). The inclusion of "love" in the lyric is meant to reinforce the emotional connection that the returning soldiers have with the state. At that time, Russia needed the populous to buy into the system in order to sustain their communist experiment, which (as we now know) would then turn into state capitalism and then Stalin's dictatorship.
In order for the US to push forward into a social-democratic future, a certain level of buy-in (akin to Lenin's "literacy") will be required by the working class population (which is historically speaking, the "revolution" demographic). Unfortunately, being a nefarious state-capitalist system, the US has instituted policies which prevent this from happening and account for the continual pattern of impoverished Americans--namely Southerners--continually voting against their self interest. Policies like allowing public schools to slip into levels of complete ineffectiveness and depriving communities of opportunities for growth--both educationally and professionally--combined with the overwhelming influence of the information age (as ushered in by the internet) have made a recipe for the propaganda savvy person to really take advantage of the situation. Think here of the "fake news" movement and the denial of scientific thought (ie climate change is a hoax, the earth is flat). This will be the quickest way to fall back into the Dark Ages, when information saturation is at an unmanageable level and the population's capacity to parse through it is at an all-time low, compounded with the apathy that comes from being continually subjected to a traumatic and/or opressed/reperessed/depressed living situation.
What I'm saying is that the toxic cultural situation that has developed--insofar as community relations and or proletariat revolutionary thought is concerned--is a direct product of being subjected to state capitalist system that is slowly farting its way to fascism. Admittedly, there is a discussion to be had here about the role of the American left wing/liberals in this situation who have continually allowed social and identity issues to become propagandized and brought into the public eye in place of staying focused on the socio-economic warfare that is currently being waged on the middle and working classes--and has been being waged on them for over 50 years. Yes, that is a controversial opinion to have, and one that probably doesn't look all that pretty coming from a cis-gender white male.
Marx said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce." I believe this quote. Martin Luther King said, "We are not makers of history. We are made by history." I believe this quote as well. My purpose in writing this piece comes from a fear that I have where those two quotes intersect. I sense America is in a place to learn from the tragedy that has befallen the rest of the globe when irrational leaders make rash decisions and abandon long term plans for healing in favor of short term bandages to stop the metaphorical bleeding of their country. I fear America will become the farce of history repeating itself. The loud orange oligarch and the selfish sniveling rats that follow him around feed him ideas do really sound like farcical characters, no? My fear is that America's history of selfishness and imperialism has made us leeches and infants on the backs and breasts of oligarchs and fascists, and that any hope of change (whether it be revolutionary or not) is lost somewhere in the historical continuum.
I read about Lenin and Russia and I see the philosophical strengths and practical failings. I read about Hitler and learn about what happens when a country acquiesces to fear and hatred. I read the news and see both of those things in action all around us every day from the DPRK to right here in Massachusetts. My metaphorical garden is my family, my loved ones, and my community. My way of building a well is by working in the public education system and trying to build community through reasonable communication and the safe sharing of ideas (ie this very website). I want to see a future where my family and loved ones can be safe, their needs can be provided for (and guaranteed by public officials with whom I place my trust), and we can work together for progress and peace.
Where's your garden? What's your well?