Der Staat Ohne Arbeitslose (The Land Without Unemployment) – Ernst Glaeser, F.C. Weiskopf, Alfred Kurella

Photography was an important tool in the consolidation of the Soviet state in the two decades following its establishment. Not only was it a vital tool for the dissemination of propaganda amongst a population that had low literacy levels, it also had the added cachet of being modern, which was something the Soviets keenly promoted to emphasise the contrast between their new egalitarian regime and the backward feudalism of the Tsar. Modernity was synonymous with progress and it was hailed as being the solution for all ills. The equation was simple; everything modern was good (factories, steel production, cars, industrial farming, power plants, aircraft, photography, movies) while everything old was bad (kulaks, exploitation, small farms, illiteracy, peasants, landlords, private property, imperial titles). The new modern USSR was also supposed to usher in the creation of a new ‘Soviet man’ who was destined to inhabit this centrally planned utopia of the future.

This book ostensibly purports to show the great strides made by the Soviet Union during the first three years of the Five-Year plan (1928-1933) during which the collectivisation of agriculture and a drive for industrialisation was supposed to make the country a world power and prove that communism was a viable economic system. The central idea behind this was to make farming more efficient and produce a surplus of food which could then be used to subsidise industrial development, regarded as a true measure of progress and power by Stalin. Having lots of food available meant that wages could be kept low and a lot of people could be freed up to work in factories rather than tilling the land. Industrial development, particularly heavy industry and steel, was seen as the only way for the Soviet Union to become a modern world power as well as build a true communist society. That was the theory; in practice it proved to be a catastrophe.

However we have to look at this book in the context of the time. Communism appeared to offer a serious alternative to capitalism during the 1930s, a time when European and American society was undergoing a deep systemic crisis thanks to the financial meltdown of the Great Depression. Mass unemployment, particularly amongst working class populations, in these countries reached dangerously high levels with the consequent increase in poverty and the ever present threat of social breakdown. Into this mix the Soviets step in with their propaganda which appears to show a working alternative to capitalism in which everybody has a fulfilling job and a decent standard of living because this society is supposedly fair and equal as there is now no exploitation by greedy bosses anymore. Obviously this only works if the flow of information about conditions in the USSR is tightly controlled to stop anything emerging that might tarnish the rose-tinted view being presented abroad. But for many impoverished and desperate unemployed people in Europe and America Soviet propaganda presented a very seductive vision of an alternative system that appeared to offer a real solution to the plight of poverty and destitution that faced so many during that dark decade.

Even the title of this book, The Land Without Unemployment, is ideologically loaded; here the Soviet Union is presented as a land of happiness where harmony reigns and conflict has been abolished. However, as we now know, this was far from the truth. Fear, terror, violence and brutality on a scale that is hard to imagine today was all pervasive.This book dates from the early years of Stalinism when Soviet society had yet to feel the full force of his reign of terror. Everyday life became a nightmare; as the state owned everything it meant that everybody was a public employee so if you were late for work then you could be charged with treason (attempting to wreck the economy and undermine the revolution) and sent to a concentration camp or even shot by the secret police. Denunciations and the threat of violence were everywhere. Soviet society during the 1930s was a nightmare.

Although it has been translated into a number of different languages (French, English and Norwegian are three others I know of – there are probably more) the book appears to have been produced primarily for a German audience; it appears to be an attempt to convince German workers that a better future could be theirs under communism. This has a particular resonance thanks to the life and death struggle between the Nazis and the communists for power in Weimar Germany which was to have profound results. It’s interesting to see what happened to the three authors who contributed to the book when the Nazis took power; Kurella and Weiskopf remained true believers and fled Germany (Kurella became a middling government official in East Germany while Weiskopf ended up as a Czech ambassador and head of the East German writers association after the war). Glaeser’s story appears to be a bit more complicated. He too left Germany after the Nazi takeover and fled to Czechoslovakia but he seems to have engineered a compromise with the new regime and he returned to Germany in 1939 and began to write pro-Nazi propaganda material for German military newspapers and publications during the war. Principles can be very inconvenient at times.

All the great names of Soviet photography in the 30s make an appearance in the book which  consists of a procession of (uncredited) images divided up into chapters depicting the successes made in developing the Soviet Union; oil, coal, industry, agriculture, education, the military, literacy and the modernisation of Central Asia. The sequencing is, to my mind, rather haphazard with images being stuffed into pages with little thought as to how they work together. It’s rather hit and miss; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But overall, the sheer number of smiling proletarian workers, collective farms and factories on these pages convey very effectively the message that the USSR is a happy place to live. However, in terms of 1930s Soviet propaganda design the book is quite restrained; apart from the cover (which may have been the work of John Heartfield) there are no attempts at montage and the images are, for the most part straightforward and unambiguous. (It should be pointed out that this book was printed by a German publisher rather than an official Soviet state agency so that may have influenced the design.) A few constructivist images do make it into the book but these are swamped by the sheer volume of the straight pictures which diminishes their visual power and effect. In many ways the layout and design of this book is quite similar to L’Italia Fascista in Cammino, another 1930s photobook which was meant to whitewash the excesses of another coercive system and delude gullible foreigners.

Women are heavily represented in the images, in depictions of factories, fields and everyday life. Although relatively unremarkable by today’s standards, female participation in areas traditionally regarded as male-dominated occupations was trumpeted by the regime as evidence of true equality in contrast to the grudging granting of votes to women by most of Europe and the US in the early part of the 20th century. The Soviets were also keen to rebut some of the anti-communist propaganda being bandied about which said that sexual relations had also been collectivised, assisted by the fact that on-demand abortion was legal until 1936 in Russia, something that was not going to go down well in conservative societies abroad where traditional family values were held dear. Feminine beauty is also emphasised in a number of the images as another charge made against the Soviet regime was that it produced ugly, brutalised women by forcing them to work in heavy labour (an image of a swimmer is even captioned: “Communism is not a menace to Beauty”).

It appears that this publication is playing it very safe. Interestingly, Stalin himself doesn’t make an appearance in the book (Lenin also only makes a brief appearance through a handwritten note and a statue), which by the standards of the time, is astounding. All of this would indicate to me that the publishers wanted to produce something that would reach as wide an audience as possible and that there would be nothing in the book that could be used to criticise the central message of happiness-through-communism. Although the Stalin cult was all pervasive at home it appeared to be permissible to tone it down for a foreign audience and instead focus on the happy contented lives of ordinary people being led under his benovlent reign.

The overall narrative produced by these images is very simple; life is much better under communism than capitalism. This core message is hammered home to the viewer through the sheer brute force of an overwhelming number of images designed to prevent any alternative reading of this book. It is remarkably effective in doing this.

Occupied Spaces – Ben Roberts & The Ninety-Nine Percent – Mathieu Asselin

Economic turmoil has always gone hand in hand with social unrest. The new Great Global Depression we are currently experiencing has been no exception (let’s call it what it is). While the news media gravitates toward the spectacular scenes of  riots and violence that emerge from Greece, a country that has been pushed to the brink through a toxic combination of ideological blindness, economic lunacy, corruption, greed, coercion and incompetence on the part of political and economic elites, both foreign and domestic, who are keen to pursue their own particular agendas at the expense of ordinary people, popular discontent is emerging elsewhere. Certainly it would appear that the very fabric of Greek society is unravelling as it spirals ever downwards; whatever happens in the grand macro-economic scheme the consequences of this trauma upon Greece will continue to haunt it for many decades to come. The cold economic statistics disguise the countless lives cut short or lost through health problems, heart attacks and suicide caused by the sudden shock of having your life ripped apart, not to mention the stunted prospects and aspirations of ordinary people left without hope and trapped in a situation of mere survival.  But challenges to the status quo have emerged more recently through the Occupy Movement which spread to many cities throughout the globe during 2011. However the two central encampments were located in New York and London, the homes of world finance where the foundations of the current global financial meltdown were laid down, and are the subject of the two publications discussed here.

Grass-roots political activism is a terrifying prospect for established political elites who seek to frame issues and debates in such a way that they can control and potentially use for electoral gain.  Professional politicians of all shades tend to be like leeches; they use their experience and the leadership positions they hold in order to latch on to a particular issue and bleed it dry of any meaningful significance (through either support or criticism; it matters not which) and turn it into pre-packaged sound-bites which they know our increasingly frenzied news media will leap on.  This is just the way representative democracy works. However, the distinguishing feature of the Occupy Movement was that it had no central leadership, being a disparate group of individuals brought together by a shared sense of injustice about the various issues which they felt passionate about. This of course is both a source of strength and also of weakness; by having no centralised leadership structure it is very difficult for opponents to undermine such a group because there is no central point to focus their attacks upon. However, this structure is also inherently weak in that what you get is a confusing cacophony of various messages about a range of issues that will not impact upon the wider public. Capturing middle-class public opinion is the key in order for protest to create a momentum for change. But middle-class opinion is inherently conservative (they have mortgages to pay and families to feed) and tend to be attached to established political parties so this lack of a central message meant that it was easy for them to be swayed by arguments that presented protestors as cranks whose demands were unworthy of serious consideration.

Looking at the first publication, Occupied Spaces by Ben Roberts, a 28 page book published by HERE Press bound in red cord, we are presented with a series of images documenting the interiors of the London tent encampment. Beginning with the cramped interior of individual tents stuffed with personal possessions and sleeping bags before moving on to the larger, comparatively cavernous tents which have been established as canteens and educational spaces complete with sofas and pianos we are presented with images of something that is neither wholly temporary or permanent.  Although individual protestors are absent from the images their presence is etched upon the very fabric of the personal possessions that are presented to us. Sleeping bags that have seen countless cold, wet and dreary nights, scrounged bits of furniture, battered guitars, cardboard boxes serving as tables and hand-made placards all serve to represent the determination and resilience of those who voluntarily chose to inhabit these uncomfortable spaces for so long.  By camping out on the streets, the Occupy Movement was attempting to signal their sincerity and determination to press for change and ensure that the pressure would be kept up.  However, one of the main arguments used by opponents of the protest in London was that the tents were mostly empty. This narrative served to attack the credibility of the protest and undermine the legitimacy of the issues they raised; it cast doubt upon the scale of the protest movement, questioned the commitment of the protestors who weren’t prepared to sleep overnight on the street and, most importantly, attempted to represent the protestors as engaging in active deception. In essence, the media message was what else are the protestors lying about? Instead of engaging with legitimate issues and concerns raised by the protest the media debate shifted to discussions surrounding the moral character of the protestors. Powerful people never have to justify themselves; protestors always have to be squeaky clean if they are to be credible. Fear of moral outrage is also the reason why the authorities usually attempt to clear such encampments in the dead of night (using the pretext of sanitation concerns or health and safety to legitimise their actions) and preferably keep their actions hidden from public scrutiny, which is exactly what happened in London.

Turning to the second publication, The Ninety-Nine Percent by Mathieu Asselin, this work presents a series of individual portraits of protestors made in a temporary studio within New York’s Zuccotti Park, printed in the format of a newspaper with a print run of 1000 (900 were distributed free of charge on the streets of the city.)  Using a newspaper format, for me, is significant; the traditional news media, in spite of the internet, are still perceived as more reliable in the public mind as a source of truth and their reporting of events forms the broad parameters of debate within which an issue is viewed by middle-class opinion. The photographer has clearly built up an engagement with each individual he photographs and this comes through in the final images which exhibit a vibrancy that can only be attained once a rapport has been established. Presented in a grid format over three pages, the portraits serve to present a snap-shot in time of a spontaneous movement made up of courageous (committed protest takes courage) and idealistic individuals whose only weapon is moral outrage against injustice.  Returning to my earlier comments, these images, in my opinion, also highlight one of the main weaknesses of the Occupy Movement; corporate greed, the ending of US military involvement abroad, environmental concerns, unemployment, voter registration, Wall Street fat cats, GM food, health-care, police brutality, Puerto Rican independence, Monsanto, Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and Fox News are just some of the very legitimate and pressing issues raised by the protestors in these photographs. However, if public protest is to result in any movement on the part of political elites then it must reach middle-class opinion (who politicians ignore at their peril) and the lack of a single coherent message left the space open for media attacks which discredited the Occupy Movement in the eyes of this influential social group.

The Occupy Movement because of its structure was always going to find it difficult to battle on equal terms with the vested corporate, financial and political groups who wield immense power within society. However the strength of a just argument presented by a sincere and committed individual or group with integrity is a great leveller. That is the reason why it is so feared.

With Freedom in Their Eyes; A photo-essay of Angola – Robert Kramer & Laurie Gitlin

An early victim of European expansion, Angola was ruled by Portugal for over 300 years (between the 1650s until the mid 1970s) which saw ever increasing exploitation of its natural resources and labour as the centuries passed and Portugal’s power in the world declined. Portuguese politics in the twentieth century was defined (and still is) by the Salazar dictatorship, which lasted for 40 years between 1928 and 1968. In order to bankroll his authoritarian and stagnating state, Salazar was heavily dependent on the revenue offered by the colonies which Portugal hung on to like grim death at a time when most of Africa had already gained independence. Inspired by the anti-colonial movements throughout Africa, Angola soon produced its own underground rebel group, the MPLA, which began to fight for an end to Portuguese rule. In the paranoia of a polarised Cold War world as Portugal was a member of NATO it meant that the MPLA naturally looked towards the Communist camp for support, which was forthcoming.

After the demise of Salazar in 1968, his protege Caetano took over and fully intended to keep the authoritarian show on the road. However the times-were-a-changing and the combination of a stagnating economy, rising oil prices after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, social unrest, the unpopular colonial wars and the disgruntled old-guard within the Salazar regime who felt they had been hard-done by the new guy, led to a military coup in 1974. General Spinola tried to install himself as the saviour of Portugal but his action had the unintended effect of lighting the fuse on decades of resentment;  his regime was swept away by mass demonstrations and the army fragmented in what became known as the Carnation Revolution. In the midst of this chaos in Portugal, the MPLA under Agostinho Neto seized their chance and declared independence in Angola. However this success was short lived as the new independent Angola was immediately beset by problems; as well as a legacy of 300 years of colonial rule which had kept the economy and society deliberately underdeveloped, Apartheid South Africa invaded and there was a civil war  between the MPLA and a rival group UNITA (aided by the US and South Africa) which lasted for decades and caused the death of millions through conflict, disease and starvation.

Known primarily as a filmmaker, Robert Kramer was a product of 1960s anti-Vietnam War radicalism in the US who, unlike many of his contemporaries that drifted back into the fold come the 70s, continued to explore anti-capitalist themes throughout his career.  His earliest and most influential work is the film Ice (1969), an early mock-umentary about an armed insurrection in the US, was met with criticism from his fellow radical brethren who were disturbed by his questioning of the nature of activism as well his depiction of the fragmentary tendencies and internal tensions that are inherent within all such groups. In the context of Portugal and Angola, his 1977 film, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, about the aftermath of the 1974 Carnation Revolution can be directly linked with this publication.  Whereas Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal attempts to explore the themes of the harnessing of mass-political power and the residual influence of business/financial/military elites who attempt to reassert their influence in a post-revolutionary society, With Freedom in their Eyes is a straightforward record of the emergence of a newly independent Angola. (Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal can be found on Youtube.)

With Freedom in the Eyes is a small book of black and white images, mostly credited to Kramer, accompanied by a text written by Laurie Gitlin. Published in 1976 by the People’s Press in California, this book seeks to document and explain the recent war against the Portuguese. Kramer’s black and white photographs within the book fall into two categories; images of the MPLA guerrillas bristling with crude weaponry and portrayals of newly-free Angolan society getting back to work now that Portuguese have gone. Of the actual fighting itself, we see nothing and in fairness, Kramer was not a photojournalist so he wasn’t going to produce dramatic action photos. Through his images Kramer attempts to portray a society coming to terms with the new found situation in which it finds itself; the presence of armed men, even though they are presented as representatives of the people, serve to disrupt the idealised portrayal of a disciplined and unified society. Here we have a desperately poor people, impoverished materially and culturally for centuries by the Portuguese, trying to keep going. The images are pure documentary record and for the most part the presentation is kept simple. (A half-hearted attempt at graphic design is made with the presence of some black-printed pages accompanied by quotes from Angolan rebel leaders and an round image of a crowd with crosshairs over it – but that’s it.)

Gitlin’s text is simplistic, full of Marxist cliché about the struggle against imperialism and optimistic assertions about the future of an independent socialist Angola which were not to come to pass. Unlike Kramer’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal, this book is a very straightforward narrative of the triumph of the rebel struggle for independence; it has none of the complexity or nuances that appear in the movie (in which some of Kramer’s Angolan pictures appear) that attempts to explore the inevitable tensions and conflict that occur in a vacuum once political power is up for grabs. Kramer’s subjectivity in the movie, in which he explicitly asserts that what he is showing are fragmentary snapshots and scenes from an ongoing process, is not present in the book. Instead we have an over- simplified and over-optimistic narrative about the emergence of a free Angola.

Perhaps Kramer the filmmaker was more concerned with the movie in production and let the book slide, or were the photographs merely a sweetener used in order to get access in Angola? He obviously had the talent and the skill to produce complex and layered films but this book just doesn’t compare at all.  Whatever the reason, Kramer obviously relinquished control over his photographs which were then used to illustrate a rather mediocre book. It’s a real shame to imagine what kind of a book he could have made if the images had been presented thoughtfully and the text had been more incisive.