Monday, January 9, 2012
96. Russian Revolutionary Plate (Russia, 1921)
Major world-history story of the twentieth century: the Communist experiment. Since the rise of big states, centralized power, and wealth accumulating in a few hands—that is, since ancient Sumer, if not Harappa or before—there have been experiments in socialism, as well as plenty of de facto socialist situations, where there aren’t a lot of people, and so, those who are there share everything. But the thinking about it got much more intense in the nineteenth century, the age of Marx and Engels, as well as the age of industrialization, of technology organizing every inch of the globe into colonial empires, and huge population growth (blame modern medicine: stop saving so many lives!). So perhaps it was inevitable that in the twentieth century, we’d try to get this thing organized. It didn’t work out particularly well, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ attempted by the USSR. But I like MacGregor’s attitude in this podcast, so refreshing after all the Cold War propaganda they shoved down our throats when we were kids, trying to figure out where the Soviets were coming from.
This plate is a useful object for this topic, because while its image is staunchly communist propaganda—Joe Worker, gazing off toward the factory that flames red with the ardent zeal of his forward-pushing enthusiasm, treading mightily over the shattered fragments of the capitalist system—the plate itself is kind of a concession. The early Soviet government was dead broke, and millions of Russians were starving in the early 20s. This plate, made of luxury porcelain, was still sitting in storage, imageless, in the St. Petersburg imperial porcelain forge—a relic of the ancien régime past which the Communists swept away with such fierce passion. But as luxury porcelain, it still commanded a hefty price in the west. So it was imprinted, twenty years after being made, with this Communist image and sold off en masse to filthy Western capitalist swine oppressors, suffocating their peasants beneath the weight of their own bloated luxury. Not what the Communist Manifesto prescribed, perhaps, but not a bad way to make a few bucks in international trade. One of the things I found charming, in a sad way, about MacGregor’s podcast here was the Communist wonk who wanted the imperial porcelain forge to become a school of Soviet art and science. Sure, both those things (art and science) go into making a nice plate like this; but only a dogmatic pedant, ie those in charge of that Communist state, would get so self-conscious as to point that out. That’s fine for teaching (in fact, that’s all this entire podcast series and blog has been about!); but teaching is not living. That’s often hard to remember.
As a member of the ‘teacherly’ intelligensia, I find the positioning of socialism, if not communism, kind of interesting in modern America. It was taken for granted, in most academic circles in most of the twentieth century, that socialists were on to something; you didn’t have to point out that you were a Marxist historian, you were just a historian, and everybody assumed you were a Marxist. (Or a music analysand or literary critic or whatever.) As I write this blog, the “Occupy Seattle” movement of crypto-Marxists who claim to be the 99% are finally packing up their tents, as the cops crack down on them and it gets colder and darker and wetter. Yes, they’re filthy (as most people have been throughout human history) and their plan for building a better future is not very clear. (The Soviets were winging it, too, despite their blazing rhetoric.) But are they wrong?