Ways of Seeing: Russian Colonialisms (3/8)

Forget the “Event”: Contemporary Radical Thought, the Legacy of 1917 and Post-Soviet Politics

The editors of ArtsEverywhere recommend that you read Nikolay Oleynikov’s “Ways of Seeing the New Russian Colonialisms: Writing on and from Post-Soviet Territories” for an introduction to the history of Tsarist, Soviet, and Post-Soviet Russia. Oleynikov’s investigation into the connections between past and present forms of imperialism and colonialism in post-Soviet territories offers a broader context within which to read Alexei Penzin’s analysis of current capitalist “states of exception”, the notion of the commons, and the possibility to emerge a new communist politics.

Forget the “Event”: Contemporary Radical Thought, the Legacy of 1917 and post-Soviet Politics

An interview with Alexei Penzin for the newspaper Epohi, with questions by Givisis Dimitris. The interview is accompanied with an artwork entitled Angry Sandwich People or In Praise of Dialectics (2006) by Russian collective Chto Delat. The piece is based on the poem In praise of Dialectics by Bertolt Brecht.

GD: The “state of exception” in European societies has become permanent and continuous. What are your thoughts about this?

AP: In some of my academic publications and papers, as well as in my forthcoming book, I develop a theory of a “continuous” capitalism. In my view, capitalism is not only a “24/7 society” with the continuous availability of various services, forms of consumption, entertainment and interactivity, but is a structurally-determined phase of terminal development. Its continuity as a dominant social-economic paradigm can be observed at less obvious and less pleasant levels—such as continuous monitoring and surveillance, and demands of permanent availability for employees, especially those who work in the cultural sector. This produces a continuous entanglement of the subject in flows of social media and the dissolution of clear borders between work and non-work time, i.e. the permanent, maddening pressure to work, which causes burn out and exhaustion, etc.

The notion of a “permanent” or “continuous” state of exception has been evoked by a number of contemporary theorists, such as the outstanding philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who refers to a few enigmatic sentences by Walter Benjamin about a permanent state of exception and the ‘political theology’ of Carl Schmitt and his decisionist theory of sovereignty. For Agamben the contemporary state of exception is the outcome of an autonomous political-theological logic that unfolds almost from Greek Antiquity—from the divisions introduced already into the Greek polis and then reinforced in philosophy and theology. Agamben discusses the permanent state of exception as an excess of “biopolitics”, as an encounter with the sovereign decision to suspend the law. “Biopolitics” is thus interpreted very differently by Foucault who introduced the term and described it as a modern phenomenon, not an ancient one. To hear about the ancient Greek origins of contemporary political problems might be pleasant for those who live in Greece and share its great cultural and philosophical legacy. But I would, however, disagree with such an ahistorical and formal treatment of the problem by Agamben.

My genealogy of the state of exception is rather different. As you can already sense from what I have said, it is inscribed into the practices and strategies of capitalism and its power arrangements. I cannot disclose here all the theoretical points of my research but my main point is a set of hypotheses about how this paradigm—what I call the “continuity-form” imposed on society—was shaped, i.e. its critical genealogy as one of the outcomes of capitalist modernity. My main reference point is Marx’s comments on the continuity-form as conditio sine qua non of capitalist production, which you can find in Das Kapital and especially in his Grundrisse. The key idea of Marx is that under developed capitalism so-called “fixed capital” plays a more important role in the production of value. “Fixed capital” is invested mostly in machines that should operate continuously; otherwise the value that is invested in them will be wasted. “Machines” can be understood, then, from a contemporary point of view, in a very broad sense—not only as industrial machines, but also as informational machines, computers, networks, social arrangements, power grids, etc.

So returning to the question about the continuous “state of exception”, we might suggest that this situation is rather the outcome of an all-embracing “continualisation” at work in contemporary capitalism. Even the juridical matrix, the Law-form, can be related to the capitalist value-form, as the prominent Soviet theorist Evgeny Pashukanis was arguing in his time. If the process of capitalist value metamorphosis cannot be suspended, it means that its juridical superstructure is rendered in ways that adjust to its dominant forms. The fluidity of contemporary legislation—its permanent editing, new “temporary” measures, suspension of some basic human rights—is refunctioned by the continuity-form of contemporary capitalism. Even that which is ‘urgent’ or ‘extraordinary’—which usually accompanies such states—is quickly trivialised by the continuous flow of media reports, corrections, and updates that render all event-like ruptures in neutralised forms or as ‘dead’ sequences and bits of abstract information and images.

But of course this picture is not so pessimistic. The critique of this paradigm could open the way up to transforming it into another continuity—a continuity of struggles. Generally (and here I am close to your next question) the renewal of the possibility of communism would be an experiment with how to radically displace the continuity of capitalism, how to displace its monotonous movement into a different direction (hopefully not by a catastrophic “full-stop” of the “locomotive”, as Walter Benjamin once envisioned).

It’s 100 years after 1917, and against the cruelty of capitalism more and more people talk about the necessity of another kind of society. How do you judge the communist prospect and how do you think that we could enrich the idea of liberalisation that is the heart of communist politics?

Given my political and intellectual genealogy I can’t begin any reflection on communism but from the experience of “real communism” of the 20th century. As the French Revolution with all its violence effectuated the political ideal of the universal equality and mutual recognition of all citizens, the October Revolution and “real communism” effectuated a “proof” or “sign” that once the abolishment of private property and capitalist rule, the foundation of a classless society, and the emancipation of the immense forces of a liberated humanity were accomplished, communism can be achieved. The “Real” in “real communism” is not about its actual (catastrophic and compromising) “realisation,” opposed to beautiful utopian imaginations, but an index or sign of the future.

How tender are Lenin’s thoughts on communism in State and Revolution! Not infantile, utopian, naïve, or “sweet” but tender. And it’s not true that after 1917 Lenin abandoned the communist programme adopted in this book for the sake of a more “realistic” politics. Against dogmatic readings of this text, it is important to note that in his most daring chapter, Lenin discusses communism as “habit.” The concept of habit has a long trajectory in modern philosophy. Lenin creates a new synthesis out of the term. Capitalism makes us think that it is the only “natural”, habitual state of things. Communism, though, can become a radically different, instituted and socialised habit, so we can finally forget capitalism as a ridiculous and absurd nightmare.

The second startling point in State and Revolution is the fate of the State itself under communism. Everything starts from destruction of the capitalist state, of course. But there is a subtle nuance in this. There will be some leftovers of the State during a period, to provide various transitional measures. According to the conventional translation from the Russian, this temporary State should not be destroyed by violence, but rather “wither away.” But in the original, Lenin says that the State “falls asleep” after the transition to communism. And this is not only a colourful metaphor. The idea of communism, for Lenin, implies the “falling asleep” of the State, its mutation into something else, but not as such vanishing. This idea rejects the whole sleepless logic of capitalist modernity of the continuous 24/7 type, in a gigantic attempt to close it off and establish a new ground for thinking about a communist future.

Philosophically, I agree with the point that Boris Groys made about Soviet communism in his little, but brilliant book Communist Postscript. I read his argument in his book, that “real communism” in its Soviet version was not a “state”, or a stable social condition or “formation”, or, as Lenin says, a “habit” but an event. The events of the revolution have their dramaturgical logic—their rise, culmination, waning, vanishing, and then reactionary consequences. However, although the concept of the “event” is now prominent in theory and philosophy (for example, in Alain Badiou’s work), I would say that we should forget about the model of the “event”, and think rather how to turn events into sustainable states or “habits” (including the State as such—radically different, of course, from the capitalist State). This is the key political and theoretical problem today.

Contrary to those saying that the state is the only centre in the procedure of reformation/transformation and governing, a lot of people believe that another place beyond this is necessary, and that it is important to think about a dual power through a new system of counter powers as a stable political formula that enforces the fights. What is your opinion?

Continuing my previous point, this is the same question—how to transform the event of dual power (which, in its historical record vanished after several months) into, as you say, a “stable political formula.” I am aware of recent interesting attempts to rethink the “dual power” model. But arguing historically, “dual power” was a specific episode during the very intense year of 1917, between March and July, when workers’ councils were in opposition to the provisional government. The councils (Soviets), by this period, were actually dominated by the Mensheviks who abandoned their power at the end of this sequence, giving it up to the government. So, historically, the dual power was definitely not a moment of success of the revolutionary process. And I have doubts about how this historically defeated model could be filled with new contents in the current situation. Though, of course—and this is an abstraction—you can substitute it with the idea of a “universal army” that would stand in for Soviets’/workers’ councils, as Fredric Jameson recently suggested, though reservedly marking his suggestion as an “utopia.”

I still think that we should pose first a more general question, which I have already referred to: how might we transform an event into a stable practical formula? For example, all the foundational modern political myths starting from Hobbes’ narrative of the establishment of the State originate in an event—a heroic deed or a “war of all against all”, which preceded the establishing of an “order.” Maybe we can challenge this by saying that the present order is not established—the modern capitalist State is not a “civilised state”, it has blind zones of exception, creates wars, and the “anarchy of the market”, etc. And perhaps, in these terms, the theorists of communism were thinking about a final exit from this hidden “state of nature” that is camouflaged by the repressive edifice of the “really existing” capitalist State. So, the radical communist transformation is probably not to be considered as a dialectical return to the “State of nature” but, paradoxically, as its real overcoming.

In recent years, a very dynamic movement for the defence of the commons is emerging at a number of sections. Its central pivot is the search for a route outside the market. What is your position on these initiatives? Do you agree with the idea that the notion of the commons generates the new Left?”

I think the notion of the commons can be theoretically productive and politically mobilising. It also can be interpreted in many ways in different political and social contexts. Given my background, linked as it is to Moscow’s intellectual and activist scenes, I have a better knowledge of the Left in post-socialist countries and the former USSR republics; however, I also have networks of comrades in many countries in Western Europe so I can compare different situations of the Left.

In general the question of the commons in the post-Soviet condition has played a less important role in explicit political and theoretical discussions than in European social movements. But, retrospectively, I think the notion of the commons was practically relevant and operative. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the minority of the radical or independent Left (i.e. those who were independent from the Communist Party that was ruling party in the USSR, which then fractured and transformed itself into a conservative, nationalist party) was forced to take a rather defensive position toward the public realm, which was heavily privatised and went into decline because of a lack of public funding, and the effects of catastrophic neoliberal policies of “shock therapy.”

My comrades and I from the generation that became active in the 2000s witnessed the next stage when we tried to build a proper Left scene in the big cities such as Moscow and Petersburg. Here the question of the commons was significant, for example, in the support given to some quite militant ecological movements, the anti-copyright movement, also to the construction of a proper “social” commons of mutual support, socialising, the discussion of texts, collaborative research, and the politicisation of artistic and cultural practices, et cetera.

At the same time, beyond the narrow circles of the radical Left many aspects of post-Soviet societies were based on spontaneously organised “commons”, such as the widespread recourse to piracy, which I never witnessed in other contexts. The degree of impoverishment of the population after privatisation and the “liberal reforms” of the 1990s was so high that nobody, except a minority of the super-rich, could afford the “legal” consumption of culture, educational or academic texts and materials. With the arrival of the Internet, however, anonymous activists put millions of books, films, and musical records into free common use.

Summarising all this, I would say that in that context, the commons played a major role, but this role was not politically acknowledged as such. As such this requires further political work. At the same time we need to recognize the objective limits of the present political situation brought about by the political regime and the type of corrupted, “authoritarian” and violence-ridden capitalism that emerged from primitive accumulation during the 1990s. For example, organising something like a “social centre”—a practice widespread in Southern Europe through squatting or occupying spaces—is impossible in Moscow or other big cities in Russia, as it is really brutally prevented by police and the private guards of those who control urban space. As the comparison shows us, the politics of the commons is more possible in the (post) social-democratic countries that are relatively more amenable to these kinds of grass-roots movements.

At the same time, to draw further comparison: the autonomist tendency associated with the radical politics of the commons in Europe is excellent, but it is not clear sometimes how to move this politics from the “micro-level” of local initiatives and social centres to the level of transformation of the whole society and the state. This, I think, is the main problem that needs to be addressed here.

Meanwhile, in Eastern European or post-Soviet countries, the task of the Left was rather to defend the society from brutal neoliberal reforms, and the destruction of all the institutions of welfare that happened in the 1990s, causing real pauperisation of the population. It was imperative to make this defence urgent and politically conscious through public discussion and political education of people who would oppose the barbaric neo-conservative or neo-liberal mainstreams.

I would like you to inform us about the situation of the political movements in Russia today. Do you think the passing from the Soviet regime to the “free market” and “democracy” has contributed to some kind of restoration of the social commitment and the recovery of new forms of social organisation?

As for the recent situation of the Left, specifically in Russia, the highest point—after the developments described above and rather catastrophic and violence-ridden transition to “free market” and “democracy”, which is now recompensed with non-democratic domination of the current ruling class —was the participation of the Left in the wave of protests in 2011-2013, which was instigated by parliamentary election fraud in December 2011. The social composition of the movement was very diverse, and also ideologically diverse, from a liberal-democratic pole to radical left one. For me, its peak was an occupation of a park in the centre of Moscow in May 2012, where the left were playing the leading role (while in other protest rallies their role was limited by the predominance of liberals). We did quite a comprehensive analysis of this movement, available in English in the South Atlantic Quarterly journal. After that event, and until now, a reactionary sequence has unfolded. I would need much more space to argue how the further actions of Putin and the Russian government—from events in Ukraine to the Syrian affair—were predicated on a multi-layered reaction to the protests of 2011-2013. They changed the left activist scene too, weakening and splitting it. But this scene can be regrouped and reinforced by the current climate of economic stagnation, given the rise in austerity measures and the growing awareness of limitless corruption in the highest ranks of the ruling class.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Alexei Penzin received his PhD from the Institute of Philosophy of Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. His research centres on contemporary interpretations of Marxist thought, continental philosophy and critical theory, contemporary art theory, and Soviet and post-Soviet intellectual and cultural history.


Chto Delat is a renowned Russian collective of artists, philosophers, scholars, poets and activists that has existed since 2003. Their interest is the entanglement of art, political thought, and pedagogies.

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