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Discarded Realities

By Oliver Eagleton

October, China Miéville, Verso, 2017

Lenin 2017, Slavoj Žižek, Verso, 2017

Commentators who have seized on the centenary of the October Revolution to recast it as a totalitarian power-grab are compelled to ignore various historical realities. Among them is the Bolshevik government’s arts policy. Under Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky – the People’s Commissar of Education – maximal autonomy was granted to the cultural sphere. The independence of established theatres, museums and academies was protected (to the dismay of leftists who wished for a ‘cultural October’ to eradicate bourgeois art), while generous state subsidies enabled the proliferation of avant-garde experiments. Classic and contemporary world literature was published at the height of the civil war, despite a national paper shortage, and distributed free of charge. Futurism, constructivism and Suprematism flourished, yet their attempts to monopolise the creative world (through radical and exclusionary organizations such as experimental Soviet artistic institution Proletkult - as in Proletarian culture) were not endorsed by Lunacharsky, who maintained that ‘the Commissariat of Education must be impartial in its attitude to separate trends in artistic life.’ Revolutionary society needed revolutionary art, but the latter would become ossified and impotent by gaining Bolshevik-sanctioned hegemony. Lenin’s inner circle understood that the creative energy of Russian artists, their momentous innovation in form and medium, would quickly turn to kitsch if it were harnessed by state power. So diversity was imperative to foster the dynamic, free-flowing, improvisatory spirit – that ecstatic ‘joy of the new’ – which would form the basis of communist culture.

Recent accounts of the October Revolution have been largely unconcerned with the intricacies of Soviet cultural policy or their effect on artistic output (apart, perhaps, from the Royal Academy’s Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932). Yet the ‘creative energy’ imbibed by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich and Boris Pasternak was not limited to their paintings and poetry. Their works of art, though separate from partisan politics, reflected a phenomenon that took place within the newly empowered Bolshevik Party – a phenomenon in which politics itself assumed a ‘fictive’ structure; in which historic events were instilled with an intoxicating sense of unreality; in which the act of policy planning became an audacious brushstroke, an ingenious abuse of syntax, a reconfiguration of aesthetic form. Lunacharsky commented on this strange sensation, where reality adopts the tenets of fantasy, when he recalled his Commissariat’s finance officer returning from the bank:

‘I remember that Rogalsky’s face always bore a mark of the deepest astonishment when he brought us money from the bank. It still seemed to him that the Revolution and the organization of the new power were a sort of magical play, and that in a magical play it is impossible to receive real money.’

Here, the most mundane clerical task – the drab reality of handling ministerial finance – appears ‘impossible’, precisely because it falls outside the ‘magical’, illusory, post-October logic under which the Commissariat operated. It was this extra-real or hyperreal dimension of Bolshevik rule (described by one Socialist Revolutionary newspaper as ‘a soap bubble [which] will burst at the first contact with hard facts’), this unthinkable leap beyond the coordinates of bourgeois life, which made it so exhilarating, adventurous and erratic. As Lenin remarked to Trotsky in the immediate aftermath of the uprising: ‘You know, from persecution and life underground, to come so suddenly into power . . . it makes one giddy!’ Dynamism, flexibility, adaptation and experimentation are crucial to survive in this uncharted landscape, where the comfort of hitherto accepted ‘facts’ (including the need for bourgeois revolution, the sanctity of property rights, the impossibility of large-scale sovietisation and the impermissibility of violence) has been dissolved. Mistakes must be made, methods must be tested, decisions must be taken and reversed – in short, everything must remain fluid and mobile if this field of revolutionary possibility is to stay supremely open. Hence, Lenin’s insistence (in his final published essay) that Soviet policy must be conducted ‘with improvisation in fundamental questions’ is not just nominally equivalent to Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Improvisation’ pieces. Their shared technique testifies to their shared cultural position: inside a ‘magic play’ whose next line is unscripted, caught between realities that have been discarded, and ones that have yet to emerge.

It is in this vein that Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution can assert, with typical acidity, that ‘He who is outside of the October perspective is utterly and hopelessly reduced to nothing’. Capitalism’s symbolic structures – those which rendered the bourgeois world comprehendible – were dealt a death blow by the Bolsheviks. The old law had disappeared, and unless people adjusted their perspective, they would disappear with it (psychically or physically, depending on whether we are reading Trotsky as a critic or a commander). The problem is that, in 1917, nothing could replace this ‘old law’ in the proletariat’s embryonic and imperilled institutions (countless cultural bodies were formed and then abandoned, the Constituent Assembly was redundant before it convened), which is why Literature and Revolution reads as a series of polemics, a declaration of what communist culture ‘is not’, rather than a positive programme. There was no roadmap for utopia. Workers were flanked by the void of the past and the void of the future – but, for the first time in history, the present belonged to them.

Into this scene of incredible precarity, where a vast nothingness threatens to engulf one’s every action, enters Slavoj Zizek and China Miéville. Both are ‘materialist’ writers, yet their primary concern, in contributing to the slurry of centenary literature, is not to analyse the ‘material conditions’ which led from Tsarism to Leninism to Stalinism. Instead, they set out to capture what Zizek describes as the ‘horizon of possibilities’ which the Bolsheviks engendered – the sense of its unfolding within a ‘negative’, contingent space which lies (at least partially) outside the order of positive reality. Miéville’s book ‘does not attempt to be exhaustive, scholarly or specialist’, but to show us the ‘protracted, constitutive ambiguity’ at the heart of its subject matter – that is, the ambiguous coexistence of fact and fiction, magic and mundanity, which animated Rogalsky’s expression 100 years ago. Towards this end, it is necessary to break with an historical methodology which purports to factual exactitude, impartiality or objectivism. Just as the Bolsheviks opposed any rigid governmental structure which would stifle the workers’ spontaneous activity, these authors reject any prose structure whose lifeless detachment or scholarly pretension would crush that spirit of spontaneity. To communicate the Revolution’s experimental character, they are forced to find equally creative literary models.

For Miéville, this means telling an ‘astonishing story’: turning the well-known chronology of 1917 into a gripping suspense novel, whose cast of ‘heroes and villains’ is applauded and reviled by the reader. In this, there is some overlap with Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government, which, despite its unquestionable status as a serious and expansive work of scholarship, urges readers ‘to think of [its subjects] as characters in an epic’. If preeminent historians like Slezkine are producing ‘works of literature’ (the assessment of Sheila Fitzpatrick in the London Review of Books), then perhaps the engrossing style of Miéville’s book has a purpose beyond its readability. That purpose, one might say, is to approach the ‘lived experience’ of a revolutionary Russian in a manner that dry, date-dotted prose cannot. And, granted, October’s atmospheric descriptions of Moscow – ‘picturesque, unplanned, a tangle of quasi-Byzantine streets’ – conjure an extraordinarily sharp sense of setting. But the theoretical value of October’s self-conscious fictionality lies in its relation to the ‘nothingness’ of 1917; the ‘nothingness’ which, to use Zizek’s Lacanian phraseology, is a clear-cut manifestation of ‘the Real’ (meaning that which cannot be grasped through our current articulation of ‘reality’, that which eludes the Symbolic Order, defying contemporary methods of interpretation and signification).

As we have seen, a revolution tears away the real, quotidian or factual, prompting an encounter with the Lacanian Real which can be both terrifying and enlivening. It is ‘a messianic interruption’ which offers the ‘potential for utter reconfiguration’ (Miéville). Fiction is singularly equipped to approach this ‘messianic’ Real because it eschews factual accuracy (or positive reality) for aesthetics. And through aesthetic experience – which prioritises form over content, affect over message – one becomes aware of the literary sign’s elementary lack of meaning, its constitutive absence or ‘Real kernel’: the part of it which defies normative interpretation. Of course, this Real can never be captured in a sign (it is, by definition, unsignifiable). But sensitivity to some lack in the Symbolic Order – its momentary destabilisation, performed by the disruptive work of revolution or aesthetics – is what alerts us to the former’s presence. As such, Miéville’s novelisation of 1917, whose stylised language casts a distinctly unreal aspect over the year’s events, can be said to frame the Revolutionary Real in all its chaos and enthusiasm. The boundless, at times breathless, energy of his narrative (‘moving across the pages with the gathering force of a hurricane’, in the words of Mike Davis) creates a constant overload of meaning, a semantic surplus which cannot be contained by any of the novel’s facts, figures or analyses. Miéville’s artistry lies in continually staging the inadequacy of his signs, refusing to positivise or re-symbolise this Real dimension (just as the early Bolsheviks refused to confine their revolutionary ambitions to the straightjacket of state bureaucracy). His paragraphs are charged with a whirling, centrifugal motion – built up through a succession of fast-paced and sparsely punctuated clauses – which drives the reader towards a terse concluding sentence (such as, ‘Nothing was settled’ or ‘Everything could now change’) whose deliberate ‘openness’ fails spectacularly to absorb this accumulated force. There is always, it seems, something more to be said: some perceived omission or irreducible gap in October’s language. And it is here, in the so-called ‘negative space’ of the novel – its persistent air of incompletion – that we gain a glimmer of revolutionary consciousness. For, Miéville tells us, 1917’s ‘sentences are still unfinished’ – its Real still lurks in the sidelines, ready to force another almighty reconfiguration – and ‘it is up to us to finish them’.

When October’s introduction asks us to ‘get caught up in the rhythms of the revolution’, then, it implicitly reverses the standard Marxist subordination of aesthetics to politics. For the author (who is in this sense a staunch materialist) it is aesthetics – the physical, rhythmic apperception of the Real – which constitutes the essential part of the political. Why? Because in order to upend the Symbolic Order, it is this pattern of inarticulate beats for which we must listen. It is the material sensation of the unsayable – the subterranean potential for a future society, the disruptive awareness that ‘all could be otherwise’ – which Miéville’s writing (including his earlier science fiction novels) skilfully unlocks. In this context, the epilogue’s apparently uncontroversial contention that ‘things changed once, and they might do so again’ is not as simplistic as it seems. Regarding the Revolution’s 21st century relevance, Miéville is not just asking us to retain the dim hope that circumstances will alter, progress will take place, and opportunities will open (all this would confine October to the register of positive reality). He is instead making the case that – given this lingering possibility of a ‘messianic interruption’, this obdurate presence of the Real which manifests in aesthetic experience – the potential exists for a complete and fundamental overhaul of reality as we know it.

So it is Miéville’s aesthetic which makes him a radical and not a reformist, which transports him from the realpolitikal to the political Real. Zizek, by contrast, is not commonly known as a brilliant literary figure. His manic collocations of Lacanese jargon and pop cultural references can barely follow a linear argument, let alone crystallise in shapely phrasing. But there is something in his digressive style which, like Miéville’s, spawns an awareness of this transcendent revolutionary possibility. In Lenin 2017, we not only get a rewriting of Lenin’s political biography as a psychoanalytic case study, we get a Marxian analysis of Brexit, a Hegelian reflection on Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a Deleuzian breakdown of the Twittersphere, and a Lacanian critique of the Jacobins. As the reader wades through these tangentially related strands of thought, the ‘central thesis’ – the Master Signifier which renders these intellectual excursions mutually coherent – seems to fade bit by bit, until one is forced to scan back several pages for a lost connective clause. However, as a devoted student of Lacan, each of Zizek’s analyses is broadly concerned with the effect of the Real on political and cultural life. And, gradually, as one bathes in his array of examples and cocktail of critical theorists, his prescient and counterintuitive observations become more graspable, plausible, even predictable. One grows ever more accustomed to the structure of his reasoning – the lens through which he is looking, if not the images therein. As with Miéville, Zizek is not trying to ‘advance an argument’ as such, but to allow the reader – through the texture of his writing and the rhythm of his thought – to adopt a certain perspective which brings this Reality to light. He shows us how to examine culture in a way which reveals its constitutive absence. If the specific iterations of this theme feel oddly ungrounded, then that is a metatextual illustration of his basic political point.

It would be appropriate to criticise the Miéville-Zizek revolutionary schema on the grounds that – emphasising the negative over the positive, fictionality over fact – it detaches itself from those vital truths, concrete problems and inescapable realities which a ‘serious’ progressive must confront. If, as Zizek writes, there is a ‘radical gap that separates exactitude (factual truth, accuracy) and Truth (the Cause to which we are committed)’, then how can any communist regime translate principle to policy? Will not the Real either capitulate to bourgeois reality, becoming emasculated and re-positivised, or remain a barbaric force which tears down without rebuilding? The second danger is broached by Alain Badiou, who refers to an unshakable ‘temptation of the abyss’ which haunts the communist hypothesis. (In Marxist terms, this temptation is formulated as a negation of capitalism without a secondary negation of that negation which would restore society’s symbolic consistency.) A plausible argument against Bolshevism is that it allowed the transcendent Real to overwhelm exactitude, thereby creating the conditions for Stalin to subordinate all minor, trifling, specific matters (such as the lives of seven million Ukrainians) to some higher Truth or Cause (which is itself a void, an empty signifier). Yet this assessment relies on casting Leninism and Stalinism as ideologies with an equal disregard for ‘fact’. And, if Zizek’s diligently annotated collection of Lenin’s later work shows us anything, it is that such an equivalence is entirely false.

‘[In] Stalinism’, writes Zizek, ‘the Real of politics, in the form of brutal subjective interventions which violate the texture of reality, returns with a vengeance, although in the guise of its opposite: the respect for objective knowledge’. The ‘crucial fact’ of Stalinism is that ‘the Real…has to appear as its exact opposite, the reign of “objective knowledge”’. While it is true that ‘facts can be voluntarily manipulated and retrospectively changed’ in the USSR, this manipulation is not presented as a suppression of reality by the Real, but as unwavering respect for reality, total adherence to its specific verities and constraints. Stalin’s emphasis on the ‘objective’ is at once too little and too great. There is a dialectical synthesis which unites Real and real in twentieth century communism, but only insofar as the latter is used to foist legitimacy on the former’s anarchic excess. One might draw a loose parallel with contemporary historical writing that falls under the influence of postmodernist scepticism. Much like Stalin, the Lyotard-Foucault cohort (whom Zizek disparagingly terms ‘spaghetti structuralists’) are scornful of ‘truth’, ‘fact’ and ‘objectivity’. Their sustained assault on today’s cultural logic undercuts its truth content and unveils its dearth of ‘positive’ substantiation, providing us (à la Lacan) with a vision of the Symbolic Order’s intrinsic absence. And yet, disciples of this credo – such as Mary Beard – are so suspicious of any claim to knowledge, so eager to ‘deconstruct’ grand narratives, that they become excessively focussed on the tiniest factual particulars. Their fear of positivism drives them away from the hubristic exercise of ‘discovering Truth’, but it deposits them in a domain where everything is so tentative, questionable and provisional that specific (or positivistic) detail is all that remains. As with Stalin, their attachment to the Real, and disdain for the exact, collapses into an embrasure of small-minded objectivism.

Against this false unity of opposites, we must find a way of closing the gap between Real and real which does not simultaneously foreclose the revolutionary ‘horizon of possibilities’. We must combine the practical realisation of progressive policy with the radical openness of proletarian rule. As it happens, there is a name for this combination of high and low, this fusion of transcendent Cause and material specificity in which neither element negates the other. That name is Leninism.

In Zizek’s slim volume, we find a raft of quotes from the Bolshevik leader which rebuts biographer Victor Sebestyen’s claim that Lenin was a wild fantasist – ‘the godfather of what commentators a century after his time describe as “post-truth politics”’ – who supplanted real facts with fictive absolutes. Indeed, many of the pieces which Zizek compiles are personal correspondences in which Lenin tries to settle disagreements with fellow Bolsheviks on the basis of ‘hard data’. Some examples (ripped from their original context) include: ‘wherever there are capitalists, freedom of the press means freedom to buy up newspapers…That is a fact’; ‘We do not believe in “absolutes”’; ‘This fact is incontrovertible. But this incontrovertible fact does not eliminate the other fact that in individual cases the Mensheviks were right and the Bolsheviks wrong’; ‘These are incontrovertible and common truths’; ‘Communists who have no illusions…preserve their strength and flexibility’. (Recall, in a similar register, Trotsky’s promise that the ‘nailed boot’ of Bolshevism will crush the bourgeoisie’s invented ‘stories’ and ‘decadent’ fantasies.) From this sort of language, it would seem that Leninism advocates the destruction of fictional or totalising narratives at the hands of ‘incontrovertible’ truth. It opts for the real over the imagined, situational minutiae over stubborn dogma. Certainly, the dispute between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks centred around Lenin’s rejection of an inflexible ‘Marxist orthodoxy’ (which held that Russia must complete its bourgeois revolution) in favour of a highly focussed and factually grounded appraisal of the country’s condition. It is therefore a gross distortion to equate Lenin’s daring leap beyond capitalist facticity with Stalin’s contempt for fact per se.

Yet, in a way, Sebestyen’s charge is correct: Lenin is out to destroy accepted ‘truths’ and preserve the Revolution’s ‘magical’, fictive status. But the fundamental difference between him and Stalin is that, while the second exploits the Real’s ‘brutal subjective interventions’ to rewrite troublesome facts, the first uses facts (however troublesome) to unleash the Real’s destructive power. When Lenin is faced with a dilemma, argues Zizek, he does not ‘merely choose between two or more options within a pre-given set of coordinates’, he ‘choose[s] to change this set of coordinates itself’ – to disrupt or expand reality, instead of accepting its narrow diktats. But Lenin does not generate this alteration and expansion by simply ignoring the available options or discarding the relevant facts. He generates it by determining which option constitutes the ‘point of the impossible’ within his finite situation: that is, which political intervention – though plausible and meagre in itself – is most likely to rip apart the Symbolic Order through its effects and implications. ‘The great art of politics is to detect such points locally, in a series of modest demands which appear possible although they are de facto impossible’. Zizek’s reference to ‘great art’ is significant, for does not the great artist also make a series of localised decisions (the precise shade of blue, the exact number of syllables) which, though mundane in themselves, trigger a radical re-perspectivisation of reality? And does not this politico-aesthetic decision-making process, this attempt to forge a coincidence of Real and real, necessitate the boldly experimental approach adopted by Lenin as well as his contemporary artists? Therein lies the link between avant-garde and vanguard: a form of open, dynamic, political creativity which Stalin would dismantle using the lowercase ‘r’ of ‘socialist realism’.

Under the Leninist approach, a decision is not deemed ‘correct’ because of its immediate efficacy, or the extent to which it fulfils the artist’s or revolutionary’s intention. It is considered successful if – for whatever reason – it uproots the established cultural logic, giving rise to a conjunction of political alternatives whose very existence was previously impossible. For example, the Bolsheviks admitted that parts of their agenda (for education reform and mass democratisation) would be fiendishly difficult to implement, yet these aspirations were nonetheless written into law because of their ‘agitational’ and ‘propagandist’ value. Contrary to the standard bourgeois line, this was not a cynical PR exercise where the abstract popularity of policies was considered more important than their practical feasibility. It was a shrewd calculation that, even if a policy is not imminently realisable on the level of ‘fact’, the act of broaching of that policy will create new ‘facts’ which the revolutionary movement can then harness, respond to and exploit.

When we have understood this aspect of Lenin’s wager, we can dispense with that hackneyed opposition between the gradualist Menshevik and the hasty Bolshevik. Lenin knew better than anyone that change must happen gradually. But his gradualism entailed the patient and persistent search for ‘points of the impossible’ – a search which is bound to include vast obstacles, redundant detours and retraced steps. A search which, despite all this, carries no guarantee that the Real will ever emerge. Whereas his petit bourgeois rivals, playing by the preordained and possible, did not even embark on such an expedition. Their refusal to seize the reins of power left them paralysed in this regard – a distinction which forms the subject of Lenin’s most artful and moving work, ‘On Ascending a High Mountain’, written in 1922. If the aesthetic core of Leninism – the image of this philosophy as a ‘great art’ form – is rarely perceptible in its founder’s acerbic prose and economical style, then this text (a personal favourite of Bertolt Brecht) is a clear exception. It imagines a man scaling some alpine slope. A man who has ‘overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers and has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, but still has not reached the summit’. Now, realising that the route he has chosen is ‘positively impossible’, this traveller is ‘forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps…and more difficult’ than his original one. He ‘does not know where this extremely dangerous and painful descent will end, or whether there is a fairly safe detour by which one can ascend more boldly, more quickly and more directly to the summit’. Meanwhile, some voices from below sound with ‘malicious joy’, eager for him to slip and fall. Others express their unparalleled ‘devotion’ to the climb, and lament the embattled course of this ‘lunatic’ who has dispensed with prudence and moderation on his journey: ‘But did not we, who have spent all our lives working out a judicious plan for scaling this mountain, demand that the ascent be postponed until our plan was complete?’ ‘Happily,’ Lenin replies, ‘our imaginary traveller cannot hear the voices of these people who are “true friends” of the idea of ascent; if he did, they would probably nauseate him. And nausea, it is said, does not help one to keep a clear head and a firm step, particularly at high altitudes.’

OLIVER EAGLETON reads English at Wadham. He has never heard of Ikea. [This must be a lie - Ed]

Art by Isabelle Avery


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