The 21st Century is turning out to be as frenetic and savage as the one we recently left behind. The lawyers of capital promised the “end of history” made possible by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the bubbly growth of the 1990’s. A capitalism unfettered by the class struggle would build the New Jerusalem that the workers’ movement failed to do.
That Jerusalem is surrounded by a growing wall separating the dispossessed from their expropriators and manned with nests of machine guns is not a throw back to the bad old days, but the real capitalist promise of the future. Two great artists of the 20th Century produced, among their finest pieces, works entitled “Machine Gun”. In a world of conflict the machine gun is both an element of oppression and an agent of liberation. Sometimes it’s just the scythe cutting down the stalks of a human life so cheapened, so debased. Violence is always contradictory, bestially so.
Jimi Hendrix doesn’t really need any introduction. What Coltrane was to the saxophone, Hendrix was to the electric guitar. He paints huge, glowing, pulsating pictures with his instrument. Hendrix was an absolute artist and, very often, an astute showman at the same time. Machine Gun is the former paratrooper’s take on Vietnam; you can hear the bombs falling.
I probably have a dozen versions of Machine Gun, each one is different. My favorite is from the, much maligned, second set at Berkley, 1970. This one is from the legendary Filmore East New Year’s shows with Billy Cox on bass and the thundering, and recently deceased, Buddy Miles on drums. It has a power that can’t be explained, it can only felt. It will make your teeth hurt.
Victor Serge was one of the very best writers of the 20th Century. His Memoirs and Year One should be read by every student of the “wars and revolutions begun in 1914” which all revolutionaries must be. His memoirs, novels, poetry, letters and histories span the hopes and tragedies from the opening of the century to its midnight; the second imperialist world war. His prose is devoid of romanticism and can be terribly dark and yet filled with hope in situations you would not think hope was possible.
Serge was one of the few survivors of the the Stalinist cataclysm. Accidents of history and the campaign of supporters saved him from the fate of an entire generation. He walked away from a Gulag. His recollections of his GPU interrogation still stands out years after I first read it.
Serge’s son, Vlady, went on to become a powerful artists himself, devoted in part to the memory of the fallen, and died in 2005. The unfortunate break with Trotsky and the Fourth International, while not simply a misunderstanding, was undoubtedly helped along by Stalinist intrigues. Serge’s witness is a warning and his hope an affirmation. He died, penniless and exiled, in the back of a Mexico City taxi cab not far from where an agent of Stalin plunged an axe into the brain of The Old Man.
At the gates of the homes, at the gates of the palaces – that we have conquered-
everywhere in the city
where the riot drags on cold, dull and strong,
everywhere at the doors of our homes
the machine-guns in the dark corners.
Dull, to bring death;
blind, low, at the base of the earth,
blind, cold, of steel, of iron,
with the metal of their hate
with their steel teeth ready to bite,
wheels, nuts, springs,
their short black mouths on the mounts
Oh, the tragic machine, the thing of steel, of iron, inert, which mutilates seconds, at the fatal moment of battle,
which digests seconds – tac-tac-tac – the
seconds drop to the infinite – and lives
tumble to the great cold of the tombs,
which eats, tears, bursts, pierces, excavates
the flesh, becomes twisted in blood and nerves,
breaks the bones, makes the rails sing with the hollow of perforated chests,
makes the brain ooze with the breaking of great faces:
grey among blackened blood.
Low machine to kill, everywhere, in the town of dull riot,
lurking at the doors of our homes, watching for what wants to be born,
for what lifts from human hearts and from the depths of the live earth,
for what rises from burning faith, from mad hope and from anger – from want and from light –
from enthusiasm and from prayer,
which goes up to flower – acts, cries – flames: the revolt …
Low to cut down flight, the machine-gun in ambush: victory to the man of iron laws, victory to metal on flesh – and in the dream – the law of death.
And this machine, our hands and our brains built. O Father! Did we know what we made?