Review: Mother

Review: Mother

A book review highlighting the utopian overtones of Maxim Gorky's 1906 novel Mother

Maxim Gorky's Mother is a slice of the revolutionary cake in which Russia's slaving class was munching on giddily during the steamy years of 1905-1907, the 'dress rehearsal' to the 1917 Revolution. But even though the revolutionary masses were ultimately resubordinated to tsardom, the novel preserves throughout time the spirit that its combative participants were once stirred by. Gorky was an organic intellectual of the working class whose writings reflected his revolutionary devotion to the emancipation of the oppressed. The novel is plain and straightforward, but punctuated by strong revolutionary thought and feeling. It is painted in grey, bleak and sombre colors, but Gorky's revolutionary spirit illuminates the greyness with a radiant revolutionary optimism. This light pours out from the souls of the characters, who are mostly incessantly devoted and yet life-like revolutionaries whose drives for justice and liberation is charged with what is essentially a utopian desire, particularly the mother's.

Tsarist Russia is an ideal setting for a revolutionary novel because in its brutal reality the nature of class irreconcilability is laid bare for precisely what it is. The rule of tsars has not passed, but has merely transformed according to the shapeshifting dictates of capital. Life under capitalism has become less severe, and more comfortable, but the fundamental brutality of exploitation and subjugation still remains, and the tsars of capital still live sumptuously while humankind, the great majority, is still tied to a rack, living without enough bread in their stomachs let alone pudding or, god forbid, cake.

In Gorky's novel Mother we are reminded of the courageous struggle that has preceded us and laid the foundation for our struggle today, that of the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry who fought and won what bits in the way of freedom we hold now. It is an inspirational novel that suggests a utopian vision of a better society that lays dormant in the heart of the revolutionary working class. “'Reason doesn't give him strength,' insisted Rybin loudly. 'It's his heart gives him strength, not his head!'” It is quite possible that the revolutionary will to conquer all tyrannical chains derives its energy from that part of the worker which dreams for a beautiful tomorrow; and it is also quite possible that the working class is won over to socialism not through the well-intentioned persuasion of enlightened communists, nor even the historical necessity to abolish all classes, but rather through a radiant utopian vision and the animating and liberating spirit of freedom- which empowers whether or not it is coupled with iron-clad reason, and perhaps even, sometimes, in spite of it. The system is too sophisticated, too entrenched, to be cast off through mere reasoning, mere polemics, even in the face of intensified class domination and historical necessity and exploding contradictions in the capitalist edifice. What it requires is dreams to be injected into every fight for the better world, dreams which can pervade the collective consciousness, and seize it by the roots in order to propel us towards a freer and more wonderful society.

But even in Mother the utopian spirit often gives way to the hard reality of daily life under the tsarist empire. The situation is bleak and promises no immediate change; only through a long uphill struggle will oppression be overcome. But a faith, one not unlike that of primitive christianity, is what ushers the characters in this novel, the mother especially, to go onwards and fight and believe, and pour nearly every ounce of hope and joy into the struggle as it persists from day to day. The beauty of the future society, a society based on the sharing of the world's wealth in common, brightens the revolutionary mission the characters have taken upon themselves, at a great amount of risk. The once submissive and meek mother is absorbed into this great activity and, inspired by the promise of the struggle, she endangers her own safety as well, following right in the footsteps of her indomitable son.

And so it is vision which suffuses the ideal communist's activity with a quasi-holy light and propels them onwards to not only fight for a new world but create one in the midst of the inevitably long process towards a communist future. Gorky's Mother is a story of a typically downtrodden woman being enamored and transformed by the life-giving practice of revolutionary activity. She is empowered by the passion of her son and his comrades, and she too becomes a valuable comrade in the struggle, one inebriated with an ecstatic utopian vision: “Our children are treading the path of truth and reason, bringing love to the hearts of men, showing them a new heaven and lighting up the earth with a new fire- the unquenchable fire of the spirit. From its flames a new life is springing, born of our children's love for all mankind. Who can extinguish this love? Who? What force can destroy it? What for can opposite it? The earth has given it birth, and life itself longs for its victory. Life itself!” The cake which she eats is the cake of an eternal communist paradise- a heaven on earth which is not ruled over by a great cosmic tsar, but free human beings who live and labor for no one but themselves.