Book review: The East Was Read by Vijay Prashad

An excellent collection that reminds us of the urgent need for a cultural renaissance amongst the working and oppressed masses.

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Revolutions in the USSR and China were accompanied by a huge upsurge in cultural production, and its products were not confined to the populations of the Soviet Union and China but found their way into the hands of workers and peasants all over the globe, inspiring many to think more broadly about the issues facing humanity and to join the struggle for socialism.

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The East Was Read, edited and compiled by Vijay Prashad, is a collection of beautifully-written essays that provide informative objective facts about socialist states – primarily the USSR and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – in cultural intercourse with countries in the non-aligned camp (aka the ‘third world’). It also contains anecdotal cases of individuals in those countries who absorbed materials from socialist states and used them as inspiration to engage in cultural production themselves.

This book is a true testament to the importance of raising the cultural and intellectual level of the masses who are currently victimised, exploited and oppressed under imperialism as a central component of the broad struggle against imperialism itself.

The Bolsheviks understood this better than anyone. Once they ascended to power and began to build socialism in Russia, according to Prashad, the Bolsheviks understood that it was “not sufficient to feed people; they must also be able to read and therefore take charge of their world. That was the Soviet dream.”

Sadly, the imperialists also understand this fact, and alas they act accordingly. The arts and humanities departments at universities, managed and financed by the imperialist ruling class, saturated with postmodernist ideology, espouse the most vulgar identity politics. This leads gullible and naive students into believing that any white person – or anyone who resides in any imperialist country – be they involved in communist politics or not, are ‘racist’ or ‘colonialist’ if they attempt to help educate or exchange culture with peoples in the oppressed countries.

They slam mathematics and the sciences as fields that have an overwhelming ‘white bias’, maintaining that victims of imperialism should not muddy their ‘native purity’ with such western inventions! This absurdity goes both ways too: bizarrely, it is now ‘racist’ for white people to wear dreadlocks or kimonos as this counts as ‘cultural appropriation’!

But there is method to the madness of identity politics. Any and all attempts to morally strongarm the young revolutionary-minded intelligentsia in the imperialist heartlands away from any engagement with people in the oppressed countries – no matter how progressive it may be – objectively serves imperialism and is thus welcomed by our rulers.

This book may perhaps serve as an inspiration for the young revolutionaries to put such identity politics nonsense aside and think positively about respectfully and openmindedly interacting with people oppressed by imperialism. And not in order to play out some ‘going native’ fantasy for die-hard fans of Dances with the Wolves or Avatar!

The purpose of this review is to emphasise that whilst the revolutionary intelligentsia in the imperialist countries must occupy themselves with raising the class-consciousness of themselves and other working people in their own country, cultural and educational exchanges with people in the oppressed countries are an essential components of that task.

The stronger the cultural and intellectual links between people in the imperialist core and their fellows in the oppressed periphery, the weaker any appeals to national chauvinism become. It is chauvinistic thinking that divorces the working class from anti-imperialist politics.

Building proletarian culture in the USSR

Prashad introduces the collection with a very damning condemnation of the international character of colonialism and imperialism, topically with reference to Russia having once been ‘a prison of nations’:

“Little did the tsarist chinovniki, their bureaucrats, care for the trials of the people. About half a million people died in this famine, which was produced not only by a drought but by inadequate agricultural technology, a rail system that could not rush grain to the starving, and a government that refused to acknowledge the famine.”

Such was the ‘benevolent’ rule of tsardom over the oppressed Slavs, Tatars, Caucasians, Mongols, etc. Prashad goes further to emphasise how imperialism stunts the cultural and intellectual development of the people and nationalities under its yoke:

“Not only were the millions hungry through the long period of imperial rule in British India and tsarist Russia, but they were also illiterate. The majority of the populations in both countries could neither read the powerful denunciation of the famine in Russia by Leo Tolstoy, A terrible question, 1892, nor could they read the nationalist accounts by Romesh Chandra Dutt, Indian Famines, 1901 and Dadabhai Naoroji, Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, 1902.

“A few years after the famine, a tsarist survey found that less than 20 percent of the people in rural Russia could read. In India, when the British were forced to depart in 1947, the literacy rate of the Indian population was a striking 12 percent.”

The Bolsheviks understood that an ignorant and illiterate people are easy to divide, dominate and control. So after the October Revolution of 1917, they worked quickly to ensure that this would no longer be the case for the Russian people. Eventually, this was no longer the case for not only Russians, but also for the nationalities formerly oppressed by tsardom.

Education took precedence in the young Soviet republic, as evidenced by article two of the 1918 constitution:

“For the purpose of guaranteeing to the workers real access to knowledge, the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic sets itself the task of furnishing full and general free education to the workers and the poorest peasantry.”

This commitment was not shelved to collect dust; the Bolsheviks translated this statement of intent into action:

“In 1919, the USSR launched the Likbez – elimination of illiteracy – campaign. Teachers were trained, and schools were created. In villages, the USSR built reading rooms, in which Red Readers would encourage reading amongst their fellow peasants. It was not the USSR’s leadership that drove this policy, but the demand from below: peasants were hungry to learn to read and to read books …

“‘The thirst for education,’ wrote John Reed in Ten Days that Shook the World, ‘so long thwarted, burst with the revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, carloads, trainloads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable.’

“Within twenty years, the demand for literacy resulted in a literacy rate of 88 percent (1939 census). A decade later, the USSR was able to announce that all of its citizens could read and write.”

Boris Gorokhoff, author of Publishing in the USSR, once recalled a story:

“A foreign visitor in Moscow saw a long queue in front of a shop. He asked the people what they were queuing for – food perhaps, or shoes? The people were in line before a bookshop to order forthcoming sets of the complete works of Chekhov and Jack London. ‘I’ve been in most of the globe,’ said the visitor, ‘but this is the first time that I have seen people lined up halfway down a street to buy books.’”

Prashad writes about Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Soviet Russia in 1927, as a true testament to the Bolsheviks’ commitment to championing progressive social causes, from women’s equality to replacing superstition with reason:

“Nehru found ‘reading rooms and women’s clubs. The Society for the Liquidation of Illiteracy and Mutual Aid Societies are to be found everywhere.’ The Church, he wrote, ‘is being ousted from pride of place’ by the library and the reading room, the classrooms and the theatre. Nehru set upon an important standard to judge the increase of reading: in 1913 Russia there were only 2,800 rural letter boxes, but by 1926 in the USSR these had increased to 64,000.”

Aside from instilling literacy amongst the broad population, aside from propagating a culture of a general love of learning and reading, VI Lenin set his sights on using the highest forms of culture from the past to further the aims of the newly-built dictatorship of the proletariat:

“Lenin held the view that such a thing as ‘proletarian culture’ cannot be manufactured out of nothing, and that the culture of a society emerges through the complexities of a people’s history.

“At the 2 October 1920 first all-Russian congress of the ProletKult, Lenin said: ‘Only a precise knowledge and transformation of the culture created by the entire development of mankind will enable us to create a proletarian culture. The latter is not clutched out of thin air. It is not an invention of those who call themselves experts in proletarian culture. This is all nonsense.

“‘Proletarian culture must be the logical development of the store of knowledge humankind has accumulated under the yoke of capitalist, landowner and bureaucratic society.’”

Lenin went on further:

“Not the invention of a new proletarian culture, but the development of the best models, traditions and results of the existing culture, from the point of view of the Marxist world outlook and the conditions of life and struggle of the proletariat in the period of its dictatorship.”

Prashad comments on Lenin’s view on building proletarian culture:

“This generous attitude to the cultures of the past would be modulated by a close study of Marxism and of the creation of a Marxist attitude towards the cultures of the past and of the present. If proletarian art could help bring democracy to culture, then artistic development was as important as economic or social development.

“It was in this context that the early Soviet period saw the expansion of all kinds of publications – newspapers, magazines and books. Despite the privations and the lack of paper, the Soviets distributed books for free from April 1919 to late 1921.”

Prashad brings together all these inspiring factors to demonstrate beautifully the Bolshevik commitment to raising the cultural and intellectual standards of the peoples of the USSR. Not only for the intrinsic enrichment that brought to the lives of individuals living in the newborn socialist state, but as an irreducible prerequisite to transforming an agrarian backwater into an atomic superpower, able first to match and then to overtake the imperialist countries.

Building a culture of proletarian internationalism

As previously discussed, Lenin’s commitment to raising cultural and intellectual standards was not confined within the borders of the USSR. In fact, he very quickly embarked on a campaign of exporting education and socialist culture to workers all over the world. Prashad gives a wonderful exposition of Lenin’s case for doing so:

“It is still not clear why the publishing houses in the USSR produced such an enormous number of books – at such low cost – for the peoples of the world. Why would children in India read a Russian edition of the writings of the Chinese writer Ding Ling in Hindi? Or children in Ghana devour Russian children’s books published by Detizdat – books of fantasy and science?

“It is one thing to have produced cheap editions of Lenin in many languages for militants, but why produce the collected works of Turgenev to be sold from Kolkata to Cuba?

“It was because, as Lenin noted, cultural absorption was a good in itself, and that it would help expand the imagination and create a richer, better world. More learning about different places could only bring people together, to prevent bigotry and narrowness to structure the modern consciousness.” (Our emphasis)

Let us bear the above in mind when we are told that we have ‘no business’ to be exploring and engaging with cultures that exist in the vast geography of the oppressed world. Or that the peoples of the oppressed countries have no business engaging in culture that comes from the imperialist core.

On the contrary, it is vital that we promote two-way cultural engagement between peoples in the imperialist and oppressed countries. In doing so, we must identify the highest forms of culture on both sides of the divide, gutting the mindless, vulgar and pornographic output of pop culture in the imperialist countries, and ‘appropriate’ the best of what we have (mind the liberal outrage mob!) toward the end of serving the proletarian masses wherever they live in the world.

As Lenin said, this is how we fight bigotry, and this is an essential component of the antifascist struggle. This is how we break down the walls between workers of different countries and weld them all into a global working class movement. This is how we lay the foundations for proletarian internationalism!

As with Lenin’s commitment to educating the peoples of the USSR, his commitment to educating the peoples of the world bore fruit. A magazine review of Ukrainian children’s book The Old Man’s Mitten (1955) pointed out that “Proof of the striking impression it has created on adults, not to speak of children, is the fact that as many as 65,000 copies were sold in the course of 28 hours at a book bazaar in Calcutta. This is an unheard-of figure! Even after the 65,000 copies were sold, people kept asking for it.”

Prashad builds on this point:

“These book bazaars from Kolkata to Accra would sell books such as Sergey Vavilov’s The Eye and the Sun, Galina Ulanova’s The Making of a Ballerina and Maxim Gorky’s Mother. The range was wide, made wider with the addition of Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism and Vladimir Filatov’s My Path in Science.”

There is no reason why this would not be as true today as it was half a century ago. The peoples of the oppressed countries cry out for culture and education, their poverty entails starvation of the mind a much as it does of the stomach. This is increasingly becoming a fact for workers in the imperialist countries, too: an evening smoking weed and binge-watching Netflix is cheaper and far more accessible than an evening at the theatre, opera, cinema or art gallery.

We must not wait until the revolution comes; we must not wait until we build the dictatorship of the proletariat. Communists must take it upon themselves to demonstrate to the masses why higher forms of culture are so important as soon as they build an organisation capable of engaging in direct cultural action. Workers are in crying need of a grassroots cultural renaissance.

If tickets to the theatre are too expensive, communists must hold their own theatre performances or cinema showings (as is the case with the Bristol Communists’ movie night, where people gather to watch a film, eat a meal and participate in a discussion about the film – a cultural activity that promotes socialisation and critical engagement, a model case!). When workers cannot access books written by workers of other countries, communists must use their printing capacity to publish such works to allow workers of different nationalities to find common ground. When large sections of the unemployed youth are wasting away in lumpen-gang culture, communists must establish youth clubs, gyms and martial arts classes to give the dispossessed youth a progressive outlet.

Cultural production and distribution must not be seen by communists as a side-hobby, but as an essential component of the revolutionary struggle worldwide, as Prashad reminds us:

“If a revolution slows down, as it often does, its work on the deep habits of culture also slows … Watching a Soviet ballet or reading a Soviet book can have an impact in other times and other histories. Revati, in Delhi, Pankaj in Jhansi and Wang in the military farm where she was sent – each of them had their own journeys through Soviet cultural products. Each intimate relationship with those books put their histories on a faster pace.”

Further:

“The imperialist bloc, Castro argued, might have discovered ‘smart weapons’, but ‘we discovered something more powerful, namely, the idea that humans think and feel’. Revolutionary movements must not ignore this insight; they must not stand apart from the feelings of human beings; they must – as Aimé Césaire wrote – ‘invent souls’. To invent souls meant to open space for new ideas and for reflections based on our revolutionary traditions.

“Castro warned that ‘revolutions in great countries fell or collapsed precisely because of corruption, bureaucracy, lack of consciousness, bad methods of working with the masses and other internal failures’. Revolutions had to tend to cultural work, to build the morale of people.

“As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth’ (1961), the revolutionaries have ‘to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.’”

It is our job as communists to weaponise the hearts and minds of the masses as a spiritual warhead to strike against the moribund regime of imperialism. A grassroots cultural renaissance will be the basis of a newfound confidence of the masses, inspiring them to know that they deserve better.

This will supplement the growing discontentment of the masses under capitalism and the subsequent growth of the revolutionary movement.