Thursday, 18 June 2020

A steaming cauldron of horse meat; Vasily Grossman and Russian path communism

The light of evening can reveal the essence of a moment. It can bring out its emotional and historical significance, transforming a mere impression into a powerful image. The evening sun can endow patches of soot and mud with thousands of voices, the bitterness of mistakes and the eternal appeal of hope.
Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman
Grossman writes how the members of the defeated German 6th Army are returned to humanity by their defeat on the banks of the Volga. He also records a corresponding return to inhumanity, as indexed by resurgent stalinist antisemitism, in the Russian forces at the point of their victory at Stalingrad. In its political and military victories, communism loses touch with itself. It breaks with those internal constraints which function in the maintenance of a necessary reserve before its own possibilities, which had hitherto defined the ideal of humanity within Russian literature – the same constraints which we must suppose are indispensable to the essence of communism. 

The Russian path is scored across history. It records the outcome of communism's self-militarisation as an already experienced defeat. The military turn in those who assign themselves the role of ‘defending’ communism always turns upon the expulsion of something in the human community which has become personified as an external enemy. That which must be fought against, by definition, has been lost by the community. 

Leading away from militarisation, the Russian path records that communism must be constrained by, and therefore must actively welcome, objective corrections if it is not to pass into a state of violent abstraction and misanthropic feedback runaway. From the Russian path, communism is not so much set in motion by man taking charge of his fate, it is rather a generalised subjective responsiveness to the troubles and set-backs encountered in a circumstance where planning fails. The Russian path fixes in place an irreducible problem: that if humanity is the essence of communism, then inhumanity remains present, as an essential component of this essence. It is this inhuman component of communism that the Russian path leads up to, and away from.

So, what is it, Russian path communism? It is the question of communism set within a framework that has been sensitised to the procedures of literature. The question is posed within the literary domain because communism has failed as a political form – and literature is the only framework capable of sustaining a path away from politics. Russian path literature is what is left when dreams fail. It sets in motion the engagement with a communism that has been destroyed by politics from the ground of a communism that is being redeemed by literature.

Russian path communism has a dual, but related, historical origin. The term first appeared in a low-grade form within the debates around Herzen amongst the literary intelligentsia of the mid-19th Century. The debate centred on the question of whether ‘Russia’ should follow its own unique path (as advocated by slavophile nationalists) or whether it should ‘westernise’ and follow the bourgeois path to ‘rationality’, republicanism, industrialisation.

This debate radically shifted with the arrival of socialist ideas and the abandonment of simple nationalism, but retained the sensitivity to the question of specificity. Did a ‘backward’ country such as Russia need to follow the path into industrialisation and full capitalism in order to develop the forces of production and the necessary bourgeois and proletarian political forms of organisation to manage them? Or, could it generate the conditions for communism ‘immediately’?

Marx intervened in this debate in 1877 by specifically arguing against the idea of a marche generale (general path) ‘imposed by fate upon every people’, and by implication, thought that communism could be arrived at through exceptional routes. In a letter written to the editor of the journal Otecestvenniye Zapisky he suggested that Russia had the ‘finest chance ever offered by history to a nation’ to avoid capitalism and, from the context, presumably to take its own path to communism.

If Marx's, pre-revolutionary, argument for exception is the first origin of the term ‘Russian path’, it is meaningless without reference to the second and post-revolutionary origin. This other origin appears in Russian 20th Century literature as a developed response to what later became known as ‘actually existing communism’ – a concretisation of marxist politics which had to be defended as a set of objective, historical gains, even where it was also acknowledged that this 'workers' state' also had its failings. 

The Russian path is therefore an argument against the delusion of ‘actually existing communism’. It is the literary record of those communists caught up in a circumstance in which they have to oppose that which has set them in motion. It is a literature of both communism and despair which records the genocidal insanity of communism as a concretised historical-political form. 

In the works of Platonov, Grossman, Babel, Kharms, Shalamov amongst others and, posthumously, retroactively, Tolstoy and Chekhov, the question of ‘Russia’, a broad term which was made to stand both for the fallibility of man as well as the limit of designed societies, is set against the question of communism as an ideally desired state which has been sullied by actually existing traumatic experience

Specifically, Russian path literature grasps the nature of the human as something that is lost when it is subjected to brutalisation. The framework by which it brings together both the registers of communist organisation and sensitivity, the social and the individual, thus becomes the means by which is set the hitherto unthinkable question for communists: what comes after this communism? 

The Russian path is a staggering line of enquiry leading away from the inadequate realisation of communism as the workers' state... it asks itself, as if in reverie, as if in shell shock: What else? What else? What else?

If it became necessary for communism to flee headlong from marxist-leninist reality, then it is not so strange that the transport of its core materials should be borne by literature in the specific form of the Russian Path. Marxist-leninism revelled in its status as a brutalist realism... therefore in opposing the historic form, the real movement taken by actually existing communism, the transcendent human community had no path open to it in the world but to relinquish reality altogether and take a literary form. 

In the face of unremitting brutality, the essential core of communism could only be saved by a radical retreat into the unreal – the human community, under pressure of accumulating trauma, immediately suspended its active existence and lapsed into an self-induced, self-medicated coma. And of even greater concern, in order to save the principle of the sanctity of the individual, its one great objective historical gain, and against the inexorability of actually existing inhumanity, the Russian path followed a route of wildly meandering exodus, heading out towards the conceptualisation of communism as a means of non-existence. 

Those following the Russian path wound their way up past the tree-line and dispersed into the mountains. There they too disappeared into the King of the Mountain myth... one day they will wake again, when they are most needed.   

The actual non-existence of communism as a literary turn records the only true divergence from marxism's legacy to the world, the characterising element of which is its fundamental disregard for the individual. Marxism's insistence on prioritising the engineering of the macro-scale, and its correlative relegation of the significance of transient individual existence, became pathological with Lenin and Stalin but before 1917 and  still, even now, defines all marxist-derived politics. 

Russian path literature, as a record of the genocidal tendencies of marxist politics as directly experienced in the 1921 and 1932 famines, the Great Terror, and the ideology of so-called ‘antifascism’ both re-presents what it is to feel the world as an individual in such circumstances, and at the same time registers the actual failure of that macro-scale social organisation which permitted, facilitated and actively inflicted such crimes against humanity on an otherwise unimaginable scale. That is to say, even if the Russian path was a flight from reality, it is also the only domain within which it is possible to really engage the horror. 

The Russian path is not specifically bound to Russian history and geography except to the extent that it first appeared on that territory as an identifiable affective trait of communist consciousness between the late 1920’s and the mid-1940’s. It is necessarily a general trait that has become integral to all communist thought. The Russian path is Russian only to the extent that it is set historically in relation to the question of Marx’s conception of exception to the marche generale

The Russian path is not a Russian path, it is actually the human path... at a species wide historical scale the Russian path wrote the predicament of the human back into the question of communism. And today, wherever it appears, as it is generated by readings of its literature, it seeks to seize communism back from the tradition of marxism, and thereby re-establish the paths of exception in human society. 

As it is generally absent as a reference point for contemporary communist thought, the Russian path also sets this very particular question: how is it possible that, given the perhaps 7 million deaths of the Holodomor, the million deaths of the Great Purge, the institutionalised anti-semitism and the euphemistic entitled programmatic ‘liquidation of the Kulaks as a class’, after all this brutalisation as undertaken as a specific politics, how is it possible that there continue to be organised ‘marx reading groups’ amongst communists but no ‘Grossman reading groups’, and no ‘Platonov reading groups’? 

The explanation perhaps is partly to be found in a tendency to an anti-empathic, realist aesthetic amongst marxists who seem incapable of unlocking the discursive codes of Russian path literature. It is also possible that the eternal ‘return to Marx’, setting the question of social transformation as if leninism never occurred, could serve as a means for communists to evade the necessary acts of mourning for their history of defeat and failure. 

But, if Russian path communism has nothing in particular to do with Russia,  then does it have anything to do with ‘communism’? It seems probable that it cannot not have something to do with communism, but it is a question that must be kept actively open. Russian path communism is not so committed to communism that it is prepared to forgive its crimes. On the contrary, the failings of communism is the content that it keeps before itself. And as the Russian path is therefore constituted as a variant of impossibilism, it must always re-position itself as a literary opposition, that is in another register, to the political paths opened by marxist influenced politics. The Russian path is therefore never less than ‘actually non-existent communism’ in its most highly developed form.  

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