May I convey to you news of my great good humour which greeted your proposal for a ‘nihilist communist’ presence at the London Anarchist Bookfair.
I think it would be appropriate to comment further on this but first, in order to uphold the convention of the issue not being the issue, shall we pause momentarily to eat and drink a little of the writings of Ivan Bunin?
”What colour is it? I can’t define it! Can you, Tolya?”
“The colour of what, Kisa?”
“Don’t call me that, I’ve told you a thousand times already...’
“I obey, Ksenya Alesandrovna, ma’am”
“I’m talking about that sky between the clouds. What a marvellous colour! Both terrifying and marvellous. Now that is truly heavenly, there aren’t any like that on earth. A sort of emerald.”
“SInce it’s in the heavens, of course it’s heavenly. Only why an emerald? And what’s an emerald? I’ve never seen one in my life. You simply like the word.”
“Yes. Well, I don’t know – maybe not an emerald, but a ruby... Only such a one as is probably only found in paradise...”
Lovely, isn't’ it? Shall we agree not to use the term émigré literature when discussing Bunin, as if we knew exactly what we were talking about? Of course, it goes without saying that he is writing from the outside, and is straining his senses towards that from which he is excluded. By time. By distance. And by events. He is summoning a world that is either long abolished or which never existed. Ah, but that observation too is a mere commonplace. Forgive me, I am telling you nothing that you do not already know.
Bunin measures out his fictions with a small cup. His stories are a decoction of fantasy extracted from his present circumstances – his magic involves suspending the dominion of the wider world to evoke a smaller other world. One can easily imagine the intended audience of ageing White Russian exiles who would devour these finely wrought Fabergé-like objects, as if they were their birthright, as if this was Russia but as an apéritif. We can imagine these stories appearing in the pages of Vizrozhdenye, publications financed from the dwindling capitals of the Russian aristos camped out in the 16th Arrondissement whiling away their suspended existence, caught between preserving an identity of the exquisitely defeated, and nurturing plots of vengeance, gasping for the slightest news of a grand reversal.
And yet, if Bunin was anti-utopian, he was no mere White Russian. He could easily have returned to the USSR after 1945 but it was necessary for him to remain outside its orbit. That is to say, it was necessary for his writing. I do not refer at all to politics. The quality that the reader encounters in Bunin’s stories is not nostalgia or longing, Bunin was no émigré – except to the extent that it suited him. The quality expressed in his writing derives from a form of authenticity that is present only in extreme artifice. It was necessary for him to remain in Paris to create a perfectly sealed-in authentically counterfeit Russia in miniature. Strangely, this world with its emerald sky, as if it were preserved under a glass dome, also becomes something of an inaccessible utopia – a decoction of an imagined world that may only be imbibed a sip at a time, and from the daintiest cup.
Walter Benjamin had visited the real utopia of Stalinist Moscow more than a decade before the publication of Bunin's Dark Avenues. He later published the essay Moscow, recording some of his observations, one of which concerned the population’s prodigious workrate. He calls them, heirs to the Tsar:
They now set about drawing up a grand inventory of their human and territorial wealth. And they undertake this work in the consciousness of having already performed unimaginably difficult tasks, and built up, against the hostility of half the world, the new system of power. In admiration of this national achievement all Russians are united. It is this reversal of the power structure that makes life here so heavy with content. It is as complete in itself and rich in events, as poor, and in the same breath as full of prospects as a gold digger’s life on the Klondike. From early till late people dig for power.
In retrospect, we understand that all this ‘work’ is leading up to the purgative event of dekulakisation in 1928, the first mass scale Stalinist crime against humanity. Benjamin’s naive fetishisation of labour is an act of acquiescence before the ongoing institutional exclusion of the those elements of life which Bunin had bottled in exile. You see, even as we were sipping and nibbling innocently upon the amuse-gueules of Bunin, I have been constructing a clumsy allegory with a tea-cupful of utopian eros on the one side, and with Benjamin's proletarian shovel's worth of earth on the other. How, I now ask you, are ideas of the human to appear in the same space as the instrumentalist logic of the organisationalists? How is our gazing at the emerald sky to appear beside their digging for power? Can we really set up our stall next to theirs?
The theoretical orientation of the milieu at present is towards a certain realist aesthetic as conveyed by the ideological conceits of the critique of political economy (I am referring here to what Baudrillard describes as the inherited unexamined concepts of productionism and representation). The obsessive analysis of the categories of political economy have resulted in the atrophy of other possible registers for theory. This would be deplorable in itself, we can easily imagine the sort of attenuated political applications of this ‘critique’. However, if we take it as a given that marxist categories are also maintained as a smokescreen for various leftist political projects which otherwise could not openly promote their vile organisations, we have to conclude that the situation is much, much more punishing for wildean dreamers who find their way only by moonlight.
That is a long way of going about saying that it is difficult to imagine an easy return for ‘nihilist communists’ to that territory currently occupied by a hostile left ideology of abject realism. It is true that in such circumstances, it would be possible to reach some people there with ‘nihilist communist’ (or impossibilist as I would call it) messages but it is not clear that they would be the ones ‘we’ would prioritised... that is to say, ‘we’ do not particularly want to compete in the market place of anarchist/communist angles (a circumstance where the narcissism of small difference holds disproportionate sway.) Anyway, those to whom ‘we’ could talk at an event such as the Anarchist Bookfair will have already made certain decisions which would incline them to look unfavourably upon ‘nihilist communist’ formulations. Personally, I have no wish to confront such people, nor to offend them in their own den, even if I hate how they have distorted the ideal of communism into a relentless ‘movement’ of slug-like decomposition.
However, this in itself is not an argument against your proposal. I think you are right to think of it in non-serious terms, as something not belonging to you and which you can pass off as a joke. Ha, ha, ha. I do not know anyone in London who would have the inclination to participate in such a project... but there is plenty of written material available which could easily be converted into paper form, certainly enough to cover a small table. Even so, it is probable that other types of events would prove more enjoyable, such as meetings, conferences, group therapy sessions, seances, trips to the zoo.
The so-called ‘nihilist communist’ is something like an émigré who is bound to look towards the place from which he is absent and for whom that place is always painfully present. The ‘so-called’ nihilist communist seeks a return to the milieu from which he has separated himself. And yet, he does not seek an actual return, as the place and his relation to it are imaginary... like Bunin, the nihilist communist fashions perfect miniatures which have their own separate reality. He does not wish to reengage with that which he has renounced as that would involve his relinquishing the very language of return which paradoxically may only be sustained by a continuing state of separation.
A return to the place would involve accepting that ‘nihilist communism’ is just one other strand of the tradition, which is an admission I for one am not yet prepared to make. One of the defining characteristics of ‘nihilist communism’ is the willingness to talk about something else. Or rather, if it is to be defined then such a definition will be drawn up through its tendency to defer the return to a central refrain – ‘our’ object is not to cause the world to live by a set of expropriations. Besides, at the moment it seems ‘we’ have struck a rich seam of gold, like Benjamin’s muscovites, and that the other things we are conversing about, the shoes and ships and sealing wax, are so much preferable to the thin ideological gruel of leftism.
If you require further comment please contact ‘us’ by the usual means and if you choose to go ahead with your proposal, I hope you are successful.
May you never be tired, and may you never be weary