Earlier this year the Royal Academy of Arts mounted Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 at its London gallery. It claimed:”One hundred years on from the Russian Revolution, this powerful exhibition explores one of the most momentous periods in modern world history through the lens of its groundbreaking art.” There was no caveat against propaganda paid for by oligarchs.
Joseph Renau -like other visitors – was outraged. Here’s the thrust of his open letter published in OffGuardian.
I was extremely disappointed to see that the RA exhibition contains very little substantial information about these artist and groups, other than the sketchiest biographical details. Instead, the curatorial commentary consists of a relentless, fiercely partisan, anti-communist and anti-Soviet tirade of an overtly political nature which continues room after room and caption after caption, leaving space for little else…There are plenty of places and opportunities, I am sure, to publish an anti-communist screed. An exhibition about Russian Art at the Royal Academy should not be one of them.
It shows contempt for the audience and, to the extent that it excludes (as it did in this case) serious, sensitive, and nuanced discussion of the art presented, it shows contempt for the art as well, rather than appreciation. It is disappointing, and, as a precedent, frightening.
Natalia Murray was the co-curator of the exhibition. In a piece for the World Socialist Website, Paul Mitchell says her aim was “to pour scorn on and discredit the 1917 October Revolution and to combat the contemporary impact of the works it inspired.”
Her dishonest narrative will be music to the ears of the contemporary billionaires—Len Blavatnik, Dr Leonard Polonsky, Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven—who sponsored the exhibition and wrote the preface to the catalogue. They made their fortunes largely from the carve-up of the state assets of the former Soviet Union. Blavatnik pocketed $7 billion from the sale of Russian oil company TNK-BP—somewhat more than Fridman who used his proceeds to set up Russia’s largest commercial bank, Alfa-Bank, now headed by Aven. Fridman’s latest venture, LetterOne Group investment business, operates from the tax haven of Luxembourg and Polonsky’s Hansard Global PLC exploits the low tax regime on the Isle of Man. Should anyone be terribly surprised that an institution such as the “Royal Academy” and a gang of tycoons have pronounced an unfavorable verdict on the greatest and most progressive event in modern times? How could it be otherwise?
Diana Johnstone says the Bolshevik Revolution marked the start of a counterrevolution that has arguably been the most determining ideological factor in Western politics for a century.
Portrayed in the West as a sort of hell on earth, the image of Communist Russia served for a century to idealize the capitalist West, excuse its faults, and provide a pretext for its crimes of aggression. A persistent aspect of this counterrevolution was the identification of “freedom” with capitalism.
Given that capitalism is a system and not an ideology the counterrevolution has been able to dress for the occasion. For instance:
Thanks to the success of the Nazi blitzkrieg against Western nations, the Wehrmacht’s invasion of the Soviet Union eventually forced the liberal Western propaganda campaign into a temporary truce with the Communist enemy, as the West was obliged to ally with the Red Army in self-defense. Ironically, this interlude led to a new phase of hostility after the war, under the rubric of “totalitarianism,” which equated Joseph Stalin with Adolf Hitler and communism with fascism, leading to an even more virulent anti-communism than before.
The Western Left has played a critical role in securing the success of the counterrevolution. This opportunist camp consists largely of Trotskyists who sought refuge from reality in the notion of the ‘revolution that failed’ or was ‘not revolutionary enough’.
By far the strangest example of this metamorphosis is provided by a small but extraordinarily influential American cohort of pre-war Trotskyists whose hostility toward Stalinism reached fever pitch in reaction to mistreatment of Jews in the Soviet Union, after their revolutionary ideal had shifted to Israel. After successfully campaigning to press the United States to punish the USSR for restricting educated Jewish emigration to Israel, these activists transformed themselves into the “neoconservatives” who today dominate U.S. foreign policy. All that remains of their Trotskyism is devotion to the idea of “permanent revolution”—the permanent revolution of neoliberalism under the banner of human rights.
Johnstone says the cause of human rights has been central in morally disarming the left and elevating ‘individual freedom’ over the struggle for economic equality. As any social revolution must violate the established “rights” of the dominant classes, “human rights” is a permanently counterrevolutionary doctrine. Identifying “violations of human rights” is a more versatile ploy than the anti-communism pretext. ‘Responsibility to protect’ can now used to dismantle and destroy entire countries the West regards as a threat to a reactionary consensus established by propaganda and force.
At present we are in a phase where the counterrevolution is heavily armed against a revolution that can scarcely be said to exist. The irony of the human rights doctrine is particularly evident in the anti-Russian propaganda of recent years. The collapse of the Soviet Union has led to a revival of traditional conservatism in Russia, including respect for religion and “family values.” The United States counterrevolution has thus gone full circle. The “enemy” today is what “anti-communism” claimed to defend yesterday. Today one can say that the revolution has been defeated, but the counterrevolution has gone insane. It is reduced to a will to destroy any possible eventual adversary, inventing moral pretexts as it goes along. It has become institutionalized paranoia, a mortal danger to human civilization.
The counterrevolution has blindfolded citizens in the West to the perils of capitalism and the logic of war embedded in the system. The suppression of serious debate and the systematic elimination of dissent has been instrumental in entrenching the notion that there is no alternative. The public has been lobotomised into endorsing the criminal conspiracies of governments and the 21st century wars of plunder that have killed millions. The Deep State operates outside the public imagination. Democracy has been reduced to a charade in the name of freedom, in an age of unaccountability.
Despite its apparent hegemony securing the counterrevolution depends on completing the transition to the corporate police state before resistance to austerity acquires critical mass. The quasi-religious neoliberal conviction that state interference in the market is responsible for the system’s ugly defects has been sunk by the Great Recession, rising inequality and the low wage economy.
Rising share prices mask the reality of falling profitability, the bane of the system. Here’s Michael Roberts:
The booming US stock market is now way out of line with corporate earnings levels. The S&P 500 cyclically adjusted price-to-earnings (CAPE) valuation has only been higher on one occasion, in the late 1990s. It is currently on par with levels preceding the Great Depression…Total domestic corporate profits have grown at an annualized rate of just 0.97% over the last five years. Prior to this period five-year annualized profit growth was 7.95%. At $8.6 trillion, corporate debt levels are 30% higher today than at their prior peak in September 2008. At 45.3%, the ratio of corporate debt to GDP is at historic highs, having recently surpassed levels preceding the last two recessions.
The counterrevolution will not stop the coming recession that Roberts sensibly anticipates.
The new trigger is likely to be in the corporate sector itself. Corporate debt has continued to rise globally, especially in the so-called emerging economies. Despite low interest rates, a significant section of weaker companies are barely able to service their debts. S&P Capital IQ noted that a record stash of $1.84trn in cash held by US non-financial companies masked a $6.6trn debt burden. The concentration of cash of the top 25 holders, representing 1% of companies, now accounts for over half the overall cash pile. That is up from 38% five years ago. The big talk about the hegemoths like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon having mega cash reserves hides the real picture for most companies.
Capitalism cannot evade its contradictions. This time the resort to war – a nuclear attack on Russia – will end life on the planet. Stuff the Royal Academy of Arts and the establishment. Understanding the Bolshevik revolution is useful.