… to brush history against the grain.
Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”
“The true picture of the past flits by…” These words by Walter Benjamin have the most direct possible relation to the phenomenon of the Soviet past.
What exactly was this experience? And what does it mean today?
Today, nostalgia for all things Soviet is a popular commodity that is so fluid precisely because its underlying experience has already been hollowed out. As the Soviet experience returns in new capitalist packaging, even the right to interpret its history becomes an object of unabashed speculation.
A host of contemporaries is attempting to construct a comfortable image of the past (Stalin – the might of empire – party dictatorship – socialist realism – avant-garde as surface design) to legitimate a flimsy power and a shabby everyday. To interrupt the din of this choir, it makes sense to turn to the central question that Benjamin asks in his theses on the concept of history: who is the subject of history? For those who take on the task of continuing the struggle for emancipation, the answer to this question is unambiguous: “not man or men, but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge,” a class-multitude that clearly realizes and rejects the status quo that fetters its lives, dreams, and the dignity and strength of constituent labor: all those who still remember the pride of belonging to the human struggle for freedom.
If we resign ourselves to the history of the victors, this will be a betrayal of the Soviet experience. But if we are willing and ready to inherit the Soviet project, we need to rethink it as the history of the oppressed, as a battle for the actualization of the emancipatory potentials repressed in Soviet history. Without this paradoxical gesture, we stand little chance of drawing anything positive from the experience of revolution defeated and popular power betrayed.
One of the meanings of art lies in its capacity for actualizing the potentials of the past, which we rush to “seize hold of a moment of danger,” as they are
“becoming a tool” in the hands of the victors. Creativity draws closer the moment in which the actualized elements of the past interweave with what is taking place in the presence of the now (Jetztzeit), leading to the composition of a new Event.
“We communists,” a nominal precision of “we revolutionaries,” a conception which in turn gave political and subjective weight to that “we” that was thought as the final instance: the “we” of the working class, “we proletarians,” a “we” that was not always spoken out loud, but whose historical axiom every ideal community considered its origin. Or, to put it differently, “we” who retain fidelity to the events of October 1917.” (A.B.)
Can we, the new left in Russia, repeat Alain Badiou's oath of fidelity?
The problem is that our political becoming and the corresponding postulates of fidelity have a different event structure. Which event demands our fidelity? To honestly answer the political and ethical challenges of this question, each new situation calls upon us to face the emancipatory movement’s history as a whole, both in Russia and in the world, in which October 1917 is only one of many important events. We cannot constitute our fidelity around this one victory without considering our fidelity to the “oppressed,” because it is precisely this fidelity that contains “a temporal index” that allows us to redraw history’s developmental vector.
Who are these oppressed?
The Red Army commanders who disappeared into the camps. The disbanded LEF and the crazy OBERIU who insisted upon the right to invent their own language. The heroic sailors of Kronstadt who raised their voice against the party's dictates.
Khlebnikov, Platonov, Mandelstam, and Filonov, who painted “The Formula and Dawn of the Proletariat.”
The members of the Trotskyite opposition who called for world revolution. The first dissidents who went out into the squares alone; all those who spent their nights typing out the “Chronicle of Current Events” on carbon paper, a news digest of disobedience and hope.
The defenders of Leningrad, and all those who fell in the struggle with fascism.
The workers of the defeated Ryutin plaform and the workers of Novocherkassk who could no longer stomach the bare-faced insolence of the bureacrats. And all those who showed that labor could work for the common good in the face of overwhelming odds…
And many others. Why recall this multitude of names? It seems more important to uncover the emancipatory motives of their actions.
They are “those who are lying prostrate”; the ruin of their unrealized potentialities have a claim on those whose “coming was expected”.
They all return us to the values of the early Perestroika, which had not yet quite lost the promise of fidelity to the revolution. In fact, for us, the Event of perestroika gave us our first “revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed (Soviet) past,” and not for a comfortable bourgeois future. Yet this past was spent unwisely, wasted and obliterated by a state-party that proved capable of poisoning everything around it even as it lay dying, rising from the ashes under the control of former KGB officers, party apparatchiks, young sycophants from the Komsomol, who all quickly found a common language with the capitalists of the world.
In the final analysis, our fidelity can be articulated in one compact political slogan. Its appearance heralded the beginning of Soviet history. Paradoxically, it also signaled its closure in those clear days of late autumn sun when the agony of the temporary perestroika soviets reached its tragic apex. This slogan is: “All Power to the Soviets!”
“All Power to the Soviets” is a demand for radical people power whose potentiality is pregnant with the significance and promises of all of Soviet history, becoming its political testament, an appeal to continue striving for the truth, even in the darkest moments of reaction. Forgotten and scorned, this demand is still an unreachable horizon, “the ontologicial idea of democracy or communism, which are one and the same.” (A.B.)
In closing, I would like to remember one hauntingly strange document of the Soviet epoch. Written in 1968 (another symbolic year of fidelity) and sealed into a capsule, it was placed into the fundament for the monument to the 50 Year Anniversary of the Komsomol on Stachek Prospect in Leningrad. It appeals to the coming generation of youths who were supposed to unearth this capsule in 2018. There is no more Komsomol, and the city in which the capsule was buried no longer bears Lenin’s name, but this text is still here. In its time, it blended into the trite, undifferentiated background noise of propaganda. Today, it seems even more inappropriate. But one can hear both Badiou’s pathos and Benjamin’s mystical illuminations reverberating between its lines. It sounds strangely insistent, a tactless outburst interrupting the pragmatism of the contemporary language of capital. Surprisingly, a well-trained ear can discern its melody as the culmination of the entire tradition of emancipatory humanism, a melody that really is the testament of the Soviet promise.
Letter to the youth of Leningrad:
Remember us on the centenary celebration of the young Earth, eternal and free, to which we too belong.
Remember! – without memory there is nothing to come.
Holy memory, the sister of care over what is to come, dictates these words to us.
All you see was attained through the work and blood of heroes; your beautiful lives continue our love.
Our grandfather and fathers, mothers, sisters and brother in blood and belief set out to do battle here in Leningrad. Here, they emerged victorious; here, they defended their fatherland, Justice, Freedom, and Hope.
Do not mourn the last century's millions of fallen heroes. Their bravery and heroic deeds were full of great meaning. Show us that these heroic deeds were not in vain. We believe in you.
We carry the banner of their heroism into the troublesome, promising world in our work and our studies.
We carry their hope in our hearts, remembering that our times are linked, and that we are responsible.
Through the fifty years that connect us, we say:
May your love be hot,
May your songs be glad
May your recognitions be great
May your characters be brave
May the world you share be beautiful.
May all your achievements belong to the human brotherhood of the Earth.
We do not pity ourselves because we know: you will be better than us.
We do not envy you.
Please don't envy us…
This text is based on a polemic with Alain Badiou’s “A Secret Catastrophe. The End of the Truth of the State” (published at http://sociologos.narod.ru/textes/badiou.htm) and also draws upon Walter Benjamin's “On the Concept of History.” The text contains both direct and oblique references to both.
I would also like to express my thanks to Alexander Skidan. Without our dialogue, it would have been impossible to write this text.