– I wasn’t here, – we wanted to set up our demonstration here, – but it didn’t work! There were too few of us then. But come this year! You’ll see!”
M. Gorky, “Mother”
The Sormov demonstration of 1902 was one of the first political mass mayday demonstrations in pre-revolutionary Russia. On May 1st, half of all the Sormov factory’s worker went on strike. Demonstrators carried slogans like “Away with Autocracy!”, “All Hail to Political Freedom!” The police tried to break up the gathering, but met serious resistance. When troops arrived, the demonstrated began to sing “You Have Become Victims,” a revolutionary funeral march. A worker named Zalomov stepped forward to meet the soldiers, raising a red flag. He was arrested immediately. Troops and police began beating and arresting workers en masse. Six people were sentenced to life long exile in Siberia. The newspaper Iskra published the workers’ speeches with a foreword by Lenin. Maxim Gorky described the demonstration in his novel “Mother.”
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The forms of protest that exist today – meetings, demonstration, walk-outs, strikes, hunger-strikes – were invented and reinvented throughout the many decades of the international movement on the left.
By today, however, it has become a commonplace to note just how small and ineffective such traditional forms of protest have become. International experiments in reinventing the tactics of struggle in the wake of the “Seattle movement” have not been taking place for very long, and remain largely theoretical to Russia’s left.
Obviously, recent changes in the techniques of struggle take place in parallel to the structural transformation of social production. This gives rise to the following question or difficulty: which forms of resistance do our – post-Soviet (or post-Fordist) – conditions require?
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In the history of the left, there are many famously piercing analyses of questions of political organization: the problem of parties, “revolutionary organizations,” soviets were discussed extensively by Lenin, Lukács, Gramsci, and many others. However, a number of practices that seem so obvious, simple and attractive today, gained far less attention.
At the same time, the ongoing weakening of struggle (in its massive forms) reveals the material character of how elementary political practices are organized. Let us take the wide-spread protest form of the demonstration as an example. The demonstration is a movement along the street of a capitalist cities, a kinetic embodiment of the demand for social change.
However, the traditional assumption is that a demonstration is a transparent representation or expression of ideas, moods, or affects of activist groups. Their number is proportional to the weight of the phenomenon they “represent” and the effect they have on power.
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Today, demonstrations are probably the dominant form of public activity that the post-Soviet left resorts to. But let us briefly look at what contemporary demonstrations actually entail.
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation and similar organizations – reassembled remainders of the Soviet system, which obviously are not part of the leftist movement – stage meetings that draw crowds. As a rule, these demonstrations have a ritualistic quality, reproducing the style of pompous celebrations in the summer of “triumphant socialism” as a pitiful farce.
Demonstrations by some activist groups seem to present a more positive picture. However, their “chamber” quality – in all senses of the word – cannot be ignored. They have the symbolic-ritual function of minimal representation: the leftist tradition still exists here, and there are still a few people who shares its ideas under the conditions of neo-liberal, ex-Soviet regimes, with all their anti-communist reflexes and their mind-numbing propaganda.
This gives rise to the assumption that this or that form of organizing protest does not only have an instrumental quality, but a meaning as such.
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A small number of artists who have politicized their critical work, as well as some activist groups help us to identify the problem of the political demonstration’s meaning as such more clearly.
Let us name a few examples: street parties like “Ours 2000,” held a few years ago, famous actions such as those by the Radek Community (a “demonstration” staged at a pedestrian crossing, as well as their “hunger strike without demands”), or the current popularity of the parallel Mayday “Monstration,” organized by a group of activists and artists in Novosibirsk.
“Monstration.” It is enough to collect and quote the hilarious slogans on its posters and banners to convince oneself that the form of this event is different from that of its predecessors.
1. Expressions and incoherent exclamations of a singularly disoriented subjectivity: “Who’s there?,” “Where am I?,” “I broke down!,” “I want!,” “I’ve been drinking for four days!,” “Is there anyone here except for me?,” “I’m looking at myself,” “A-A-A!”, “I-i-i-ng,” “Fu,” “Cked, “ENAYB,” or “Oh well…”
2. Meta-descriptions of what could be written on posters: “Banner,” “Message of Love and Peace,” “Antiglobalist Slogan.”
3. Absurd syntagma from the world of contemporary information technologies: “404 NOT FOUND,” or “Read me.”
4. Parodies on the form of “wise judgements”: “Gentleness is the best attachment,” “Not eggs decorate people, but people decorate eggs!,” “Life is candy,” “Reality is the destiny of the gods,” “A magnet-girl can survive in the metro for 8 years.”
5. Tautological or meaningless calls for action: “Say no to the colonization of Mars!,” “All hail to the robots!,” “May we May!”, “Peace, Labor, MayA,” “Give the earth to the farmers and the sky to the aliens!”
6. The installation of fragments of everyday speech onto surfaces of banners and placards: “Closed for business,” “Milk?,” “Catch the stallion,” “Wash up after yourself,” “Somehow like that.”
A gathering of political monads with slogans that are either only potentiality or express nothing at all, save the fragmented universe of anonymous human speech. Is this a demonstration, not as a finite representation, but as a means of liberating movement again, searching for a clean slate or a breach in the steel decorations of fear and loathing?
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Maybe we can see the ongoing potentialization of all forms of protest as more than indicators of an icy night that swallows the last sparkles of the past, washing away the figure of Zalomov the worker, stepping out into the sunny morning of May in 1902 to meet the soldiers with a red flag? May be they have a value of their own as situations of laughter, joy, thought, and suffering that promise something new? Potentiality is always connected with torture that it is incapable of assuaging.
Maybe we can see beyond the dizzying impotence, confusion, and despair in the face of the immense, idiotic audacity of late capitalism that meets no serious stumbling blocks anywhere, shamelessly spreading to all possible surfaces on the plant, unafraid of being caught off guard, scoffing at the specters of its former enemies, spreading silence and despair. Maybe there is some moment of new, amazingly clear form of intelligent resistance on the horizon? A new form of struggle, a powerful “no” far stronger that the polyphonously asinine “yes” of the global market’s fury?