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#10: How do politics begin? Part II

Aleksandr Skidan /// Small Political Testament

How could I ever betray to scandalmongers –
Again the frost smells of apples –
That marvelous pledge to the Fourth Estate
And vows solemn enough for tears?

Osip Mandelstam, “1 January 1924”

Politics begin with affects and passions. Affect is the childhood of theory. This is why I will begin with my childhood. (To avoid any possible confusion: the autobiographical tone of these notes is not dictated by nostalgia, but motivated by the desire to use my “personal case” to clarify what I daresay is a common logic, a pressure irreducible to class interests, which makes us turn to the Marxist tradition. This is actually where the epigraph comes from. Mandelstam wrote this poem directly after Lenin’s death; by “vows solemn enough for tears”, he means Herzen and Orgaev on the Sparrow Hills (cf. Herzen’s “My Past and Thoughts”) but also Stalin’s vow on the grave of the world proletariat’s leader.)

How could I ever betray to scandalmongers –
Again the frost smells of apples –
That marvelous pledge to the Fourth Estate
And vows solemn enough for tears?

Osip Mandelstam, “1 January 1924”

Politics begin with affects and passions. Affect is the childhood of theory. This is why I will begin with my childhood. (To avoid any possible confusion: the autobiographical tone of these notes is not dictated by nostalgia, but motivated by the desire to use my “personal case” to clarify what I daresay is a common logic, a pressure irreducible to class interests, which makes us turn to the Marxist tradition. This is actually where the epigraph comes from. Mandelstam wrote this poem directly after Lenin’s death; by “vows solemn enough for tears”, he means Herzen and Orgaev on the Sparrow Hills (cf. Herzen’s “My Past and Thoughts”) but also Stalin’s vow on the grave of the world proletariat’s leader.)

At the age of eleven, I read a book by Marianna Basina on Pushkin. It is called “On the Banks of the Neva” and narrates the story of the poet’s life in Petersburg in the years immediately following his graduation from the Lyceum. I was amazed by the freedom-loving spirit of that age: noisy literary get-togethers, the “Ode to Liberty”, friendship with the future Decabrists, anti-governmental poems, exile. I began to imitate Pushkin’s political epigrams, and later, I organized something like a secret society in my class at school. This was frightfully naïve. We bought a bunch of brochures with texts by Marx and Lenin and set about “studying them,” understanding nothing, obviously. But our main feeling was that they were lying to us somehow by hiding behind these names. After a few months, our circle fell apart. But my yearning for a brotherhood of liberty, for society – I couldn’t see any society worth mentioning around me – remained.

Both of my grandfathers were persecuted under Stalin. My paternal grandfather was an naval engineer and shipwright in Sevastopol. His last name was Stoltz. In 1941, they came for him. My grandmother spent the entire war in Siberia as a “German” and an “enemy of the people.” My maternal grandfather was a philosopher (ironically, his last name was Marcuse), who had graduated from the Academy of Red Professors and had participated in the repression of the Kronstadt Mutiny. He wrote a book about the Young Hegelians and taught dialectical materialism. They put him away in 1949 in the course of the “Leningrad case.” He came back from the gulag after Stalin’s death and passed away soon afterward. All I ever heard about these two were vague, fragmentary scraps of information; I learned to guess at the “grand narrative” of history through half-hints and intimations. My parents listened to semi-dissident bards like Vysotsky, Galich, and Okudzhava. The Decabrists, and later, the People’s Will were untouchable ideals; their fate was projected onto modern times, without much benefit to the latter. At fifteen, I had become a consummate “anti-Soviet,” though not as a dissident, but in the cultural-everyday sense, so to speak: “It’s enough to look at their faces!” (The faces of the Politburo members). I had no idea about economic questions, and could never quite understand what exactly was so bad about “barracks socialism” (a definition I often heard from my father). All I know is that I was suffocating in an atmosphere of restrictions and lies.

I went to the army because I didn’t want to have to the exams required to enroll in university, which would have included social studies or history as something unavoidable; I knew that I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself. I experienced what was nearly physical revulsion at words like “basis” and “superstructure” and whenever I heard the name of “Stalin,” I would simply begin to tremble. After the army, I got a job in a stoke room, floating all the way to the bottom so they wouldn’t be able to touch me. In parallel, I played amateur theater and wrote poetry. I welcomed the Perestroika with shouts of joy, demonstrated in front of the Kazan Cathedral under democratic slogans, but the militia sent us packing. In August 1991, I ran through the city for three days as if intoxicated, posting up leaflets with calls to defy the GKChP (=General Committee for a State of Emergency, the ill-fated group of conspirator that tried to overthrow Gorbachev and to put an end to the Perestroika), and spending the nights on the square in front of the Marininsky Palace. It was here that I experienced an incredible feeling of camaraderie and solidarity with a huge number of strangers for the first (and only) time in my life. For those three days, what was first a crowd became a people. This was amazing. You can’t find such open, inspired faces today. But after no more than two or three months, a hangover set in. A pretty bitter hangover, fair enough. Nevertheless, it was a moment of liberation.

After this political upsurge, slackness and disappointment set in. Again, everything was being decided from “above,” while on the “bottom,” everyone was simply busy surviving in the most elementary way, and thus again forced into silence. The Communists drew no conclusions whatsoever from the collapse of the Soviet Union and their near-sighted policies; they were doomed. I continued to work in the stoke room all the way through the 1990s. They paid me no more than a pittance, so that I had to make money on the side through translations and journalism, but on bad days, I simply went without money at all. But this actually helped me to keep “a clean conscience”: I was just as impoverished as the overwhelming majority of a people that had reverted to being human material or trash. My only privilege was participation in the “cultural process,” but here the speed of decay was also gaining momentum: the former of members of the Independent Cultural Movement either changed professions to become part of “the management” (bureaucrats or business), emigrated, or placed their bets on a career in the slightly renovated institutions that they had only just held in such contempt. Just as in all other spheres, the system absorbed the revolutionary impulse here as well. The intelligentsia and its “creative specialists” seemed completely unable to realize their common interests or to formulate any collective position; they were bought, “separated,” and “pulled out” one by one.

After working in the stoke room for seventeen years, I left my job to work at a glossy magazine, where I was in charge of the book reviews. Suddenly, I found that I had money (though the sum was laughable in comparison to the money they pay in Moscow), but the flipside of this success was that I had lost my inner freedom. What followed was an abrupt politicization. I was finally confronted with the mechanism of capitalist cultural production in practice, coming face to face with alienation, with a more or less veiled war of all against all. Paradoxically, it was not in the stoke room, among welders and plumbers, but in the little world of the relatively well-fed and affluent “middle class” that I realized that I was a wage laborer. By today, I am ready to repeat the “Communist Manifesto” word for word, especially those parts that concern the middle classes, among which I would count the growing army of immaterial labor: “If by chance, they are revolutionary, they are only so in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.” The question is: what will have to happen these immaterial workers of the middle class to place themselves onto a proletarian standpoint? Since they are in a position of privilege in terms of both economics and culture, they partake of the same basic bourgeois values as the powers that be; they also have something to lose (and it is ultimately this factor that prevents consolidation with those who have really been disenfranchised). They have the consciousness of petty proprietors, although objectively, they do not own their means of production. However, subjectively, “for themselves”, they are the owners of both their intellectual and creative capabilities (can there be any more individual means of production that the production of subjectivity?) and of the products of the “immaterial” activities, which they are forced (are they really “forced”?) to sell at market value, gaining symbolic capital in the bargain, a surplus value of sorts. Which events – interior or exterior – could prove capable of converting their “for themselves” into “not themselves”, and then, “beside themselves”? “Beside themselves”, whose structure itself is so akin to conversions, oaths, and vows…

 

Alexander Skidan (born 1965) is a poet, critic, translator, and member of the workgroup Chto delat/What is to be done. He lives in Petersburg.

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