A Moscow apartment. 1 PM. Alexei is sitting in the kitchen, drinking coffee. Oxana comes out of the bedroom with her eyes half-shut.
Oxana: Hi, Alexey. Listen, I don’t feel very well. And I also have a vague sense that something happened last night. Maybe it was a dream I can’t remember? Or you know, there are moments of rest and leisure when nothing happens but it seems like something in the world has turned upside down?
Alexei: I know what you mean. But seriously, Oxana, you really don’t remember anything?
Oxana: No, Alexei.
Alexei:You really don’t remember how you threw a volume of Cicero at me last night? How you accused me of hating you, of suppressing your talents? You don’t remember how you cried for an hour?
Oxana: Oh wow…
Alexei: You have to take a hold of yourself. What you need is a little self-control. So that’s my friendly advice to you, if you want to feel in tune with yourself!
Oxana: But that’s the problem. I can never quite understand what it means to control myself. I can control my spending, or I can grasp a book; I can even take a hold of you. But where is this self that I’m supposed to take a hold of? And does this self want anyone to take a hold of it at all?
Alexei: Well, I just mean that you have to answer for yourself to yourself. You have to be aware of what it is that you’re doing.
Oxana: Yes, but who has to answer to whom?
Alexei: One half to another. The one that throws around books, to the one that is writing her dissertation.
Oxana: In this case, the writing Demioxana also needs to respond to the furious Demioxana. Why does the former write all of this bullshit, while both remain within the boring limits of being, under the burden of male rationality?
You know, I’ve tried to enter my own dreams, to present myself to the nightly Demioxana – the half-Oxana that I am when I’m dreaming!
Alexei: So you tyrannize your sleep! Maybe you would be able to take a hold of yourself, dear Oxana, if you keep yourself at a safer distance from all of this. My suggestion is that you keep from jumping into the darkness and folly with your consciousness. What you should really do is to hold back on all those self-willed flashes of excess, after which you leave a part of yourself in the dark!
Oxana: But isn’t self-will actually a way of controlling yourself? Isn’t self-forgetting the beginning of self-disposal, a way of throwing away everything superfluous, of starting from scratch to act on one’s own? Because it’s actually this self-abandonment that can provide me with those two parts that, as you say, have to present themselves to on other: – Oxana. – Demioxana.
After all, isn’t self-disposal what democracy is all about? Like…the people rules itself. Or take all this talk about “autonomy.” Same thing, right?
Alexei: Yes, Oxana, but there’s no other way today. God is dead. Human beings are all on their own, left to themselves. Which is why they need to take a hold of themselves, to control themselves. It’s the same with collectives or entire peoples. But since they aren’t gods, they can’t control themselves all the time, which is what leads to the kind of craziness like what you did last night.
Oxana: But like it says in my dissertation: democracy is the political expression of the subject, or subjectivity.
But, since the subject is not God, and the people is not God, self-rule is all about choosing members of parliament and presidents from a bunch of Teletubbies, only to find out about what they do on our behalf later on, on TV or over the Internet.
Alexei: But we can’t all sit in the Kremlin, millions of us, discussing taxes, traffic rules and the criminal code. Which are necessary things.
Oxana: OK, but that means that people’s “halves” aren’t actually controlling one another, but that our “representatives” are the ones who are in control: TV personalities, deputies, presidents, and money, in the end.
Alexei: Maybe we can only talk about real self-rule in moments of crisis, in revolutionary moments when the people forgets itself, like you did last night, in order to present itself to itself, and to take control of itself.
Oxana: Yes, strangely, this morning I don’t only feel shame, but also some sense of the sublime. I feel myself.
Then again, in cases like these, there is no such thing as divine, absolute self-rule either. Again, you need representatives to transmit the revolutionary impulse. There are representative organs that destroy the existing institutions, that cut history apart, but which also provide for the return of the ecstatic, avant-gardist impulse back into the masses. Such organs were, for instance, the revolutionary communes in revolutionary France of the 1790s and in 1871; in Russia, these were our Soviets, both in 1905 and 1917, there were also councils in Budapest in 1956, etc.
Alexei: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Too bad we’re living in such a reactionary age. The revolution and its organs have been discredited, subdued by the formal and hypocritical parliamentarism, where the subject-capital and the subject-state rule on behalf of the finite human subject.
Can we talk about democracy in today’s Russia at all, for instance, if its revolutionary heritage has been betrayed? Even the “orange” revolution in Ukraine has not left any revolutionary representation after it was over.
Oxana: True. But on the other hand, we shouldn’t just treat self-rule and democracy as nothing more than a utopia, or a lost heritage. In a sense, the abyss of revolution still supplies the horizon of our political life; it substitutes the ground beneath our feet, and defines…
Alexei (interrupting her): Exactly, exactly, we need prepare for the coming revolution! That’s what I’ve always been saying…
Oxana: Wait, listen. I don’t mean the future, I mean the past – the Perestroika, this counterrevolutionary revolution of ours. Because, you have to remember, when Gorbachev was destroying the Soviet regime, he was armed with the slogan “All power to soviets”. You’ll probably say that this is an imitation, little more than rich bureaucrats appealing to some stormy revolutionary past. But the fact is that the “soviet” – and not parliamentary – structure of the organs of power that were created by Gorbachev did actually play a serious role in the intensity of the processes that followed.
Because to mobilize and reenergize society and to use the people in his war with bureaucracy, Gorbachev tried to perfect to model of soviets, which was already part of the old Soviet constitution, and combining it with the Congress of People’s Deputies, which had existed during the revolutionary epoch but had been annulled by Stalin. He also added competitive elections. And all of this to avoid creating a parliamentary system of the Western type. So what the reform of 1988 did was to introduce the institution of the Congress of People’s Deputies, a huge, unprofessional organ, which was elected directly in part, and partially chosen by “social organization.” The Congress convened irregularly, while the Supreme Soviet, a permanent institution elected by the Congress had all the power. The people had the right to “recall” deputies. (Note how the right of recall – the so-called “imperative mandate” – is absent from Western parliaments because it contradicts the principle of transparency.) Deputies of all levels had the right to combine their political activities with their main professions. But anyway, the most important thing is that the law confirmed the omnipotence of the soviets (“All Power to the Soviets!”).
Alexei: So in standard political language, we’re talking about the unlimited sovereignty of the Soviets!
Oxana: That right! The model of soviets excludes the liberal division of powers.
And obviously, you remember what happened next. Though the Congress remained loyal to Gorbachev, the broadcast of its sessions on TV involved all of society in political struggle. This demonstrated the mobilization and polarization of society. Soviets, multiplied by the electronic media, played a truly representative role – they presented the subject to itself, while tearing him apart into two antagonistic “halves”.
Later, the new federal model was expanded into regional “republics”. As a result, the new regional centers expropriated power from the federal and party organs. Yeltsin, the new President of Russia, entered into a struggle against the Congress and the Supreme Soviet, which defended their monopoly on power, in accordance with the rediscovered spirit of soviets. But then, yet another ideological rupture broke into their struggle: the Congress and the Supreme Soviet armed themselves with reactionary, nationalist rhetoric, while Yeltsin was talking about liberalism and reform. But many observers think that the main reason of the clash was institutional rivalry.
In 1993, Yeltsin entered an open fight with the Supreme Soviet, violently dissolved it, and successfully suggested a new constitution, which destroyed the soviet structure, and introduced a standard 2-chamber parliament. The liberal media spent most of these months criticizing the soviets as a rudiment of the past, and welcomed “desovietization” as a return to “normalcy”, that is, to the parliamentary form dominant in the West. But after these events, Yeltsin’s regime gradually began to lose its legitimacy and democratism.
Alexei: You’re quite a smooth talker there, Oxana. But what your point?
Oxana: The point is the historical irony of it all, silly!
The soviets were once an organ of revolutionary democracy, even if they carried the traits of the old form of representation, based on estates. (Actually, they were still called the “soviets of the workers’, soldiers’, peasants’, and cossacks’ deputies” for a long time.) Then, they were deprived of their power by the party and then petrified as a purely decorative institution, much like the representation of estates they had originated in. But the attempt to take this institution seriously and use it again seventy years later led to the reactivation of its subversive potential, and then to the self-destruction, both of the state, and of soviets themselves. The soviets played a role of a virus of revolution that had “hibernated” in the organism of the state and had waited for its time to come. The history of the “Soviet” Union (deceptively but eloquently named after the powerless soviets) is squeezed between two periods in which it was actually ruled by soviets: 1917-1921 and 1989-1993.
In this sense, the soviets are like the mythological egg of Kashei the Immortal: they contain both the birth of the Soviet Union and its death. But they are also the most universal phenomenon of those associated with the Soviet Union, and the one with the most potential. They are our very own “unfinished project”.
Alexei: Ok, now I see where you’re heading. I can even add some scholarly knowledge of my own to the conclusion you’re drawing.
Indeed, the role of councils in history was self-contradictory. “Representative democracy” – the regime we now see as dominant throughout the world – is an oxymoron. This regime, whose first theorist was Abbé Siéyes, fuses two political conceptions: the idea of the feudal-estate representation (which had never had anything to do with democracy) and the notion of popular sovereignty (which would exclude any representation), introduced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the first of these conceptions, the people is understood as a multitude of passive subjects, in the second – as a unitary absolute sovereign. The combination of these contradictory notions indicates that they are not self-sufficient, but that there is a force of historical event acting through them. It is the event of revolution, which is a point of fold between the passive and the active meaning of representation.
Oxana: So who was this Siéyes?
Alexei: He was one of the leading ideologists of the French revolution. Shortly before the gathering of General Estates in France, in 1789, he published a pamphlet called “What is the third estate?” where he formulated the main constitutional principles of the future revolutionary power.
In this pamphlet, Siéyes showed that in the moment of revolution, there appears an extraordinary “constituent” power, which does not have any procedure to follow. It only gives rise to new regular representative organs later. And when the revolution erupted, this constituent power did in fact appear – not just in the Constituent Assembly but most crucially in the Parisian Commune – in the new municipal organs of Paris.
Both of these powers appeared at the moment when the king decided to convoke the “General Estates”, which was an old, feudal organ. The turn of the absolutist king back to the institution that had seemed obsolete to many led to the emergence of a new, revolutionary power.
Oxana: Thanks for your support, Alexei. So now you see that perestroika, which seems to be a restoration, does indeed fit into the contradictory history of revolutions.
Today, many in our intelligentsia are ready to discount the failure of the 1980s-1990s revolution, quoting the age-old paternalism of the Russian people. And these self-torments resonate precisely at a time in which the only real mass movements are motivated by this “paternalism”: remember the demonstrations of pensioners against the annulment of benefits last year? Of course, we would like to see active, responsible liberal subjects around us, as we do in the West. But such subjects, in themselves, are not fit for revolutions; they can take a hold of themselves but they cannot found themselves. For revolutions, we need also reactive affects, not just “activity”.
Alexei: So you are a good revolutionary after all, Oxana. Yesterday, you reminded of a reaction-propelled jet airplane.
Oxana: I meant reactivity in the Nietzschian sense, in the sense of reaction, not as spontaneous action.
Alexei: In general, I agree. One can learn just as much by observing you as by listening to your words of wisdom. Power born from helplessness, from complaint and revolt. But only on the condition that helplessness overfills you…
There is a difference between legal, performative power, which pretends that it is creating ex nihilo but in fact reproduces the status quo – and the power that acts hastily and blindly, for which force and forward motion are more important than its product, power that forgets itself. Such is the constituent power that transforms the existing institutions by pushing them to the limit and filling them over with itself.
Self-forgetting – such is the definition of constituent power, as opposed to the self-reporting of constituted power.
Oxana: Does the self-forgetting mean spontaneity – freedom, to put it simply? Can one just give oneself to revolution?
Alexei: You can, but only if you really want to. But you have to be careful here: we should not understand spontaneity as automatic self-generation, nor should we see revolution, in its gradual escalation, as an escalator that one can mount and ride.
By the way, there are two serious contemporary thinkers who wrote a lot about the soviets: Hannah Arendt (On Revolution) and Toni Negri (Potere Constituente). Both of them really love soviets. For Arendt, they are an alternative form of representation. Soviets, she says, represent people in their activity, not in their passivity, like parliaments do. Because of their diffuse, chain-like way of delegating power, bottom-up, soviets create the real unity of society instead of subordinating it to the unity of a symbol. But at the same time, Arendt believes that the soviets arise, in a revolutionary time, spontaneously, as though out of nothing – thus guaranteeing free activity in a polity. The failure of soviets is linked, in her view, to their incapacity to do everyday economic management.
Negri, on the contrary, thinks that soviets unite political activity with economic creativity, i.e., with production. The spontaneity of soviets parts from the spontaneity of productive labor, from the natural power (in the sense of Spinoza). And, from Negri’s point of view, soviets and the organs analogous to them, are not just an extraordinary power, but they can, and should become a regular institution.
Though he notes that the constituent institutions are always born out of crisis and stoppage, Negri, like Arendt, insists on the spontaneity and activity of the constituent power that creates, as though, out of nothing. Generally, both he and Arendt make a mistake when they emphasize the “spontaneity” of constituent power. They don’t pay attention to the fact that it grows out of estate-based forms. The paradox is, that the forms that have nicely maintained the passivity of citizens, turn into the weapon of their revolution. We are dealing less with creation ex nihilo, and more with a turn in consciousness and action, on the fait accompli, and not on the ideal norm. The passive, reactive negativity of a complaint turns into an irreconcilable, infinite negativity. Subjectivity is, in its origin, not a thing, nor an act, but an event, a turn, a rupture.
Oxana: So everything is upside down.
It turns out that representation ties us to the past with a knot, that it turns the past inside out. It is as if we were now living in a Soviet society turned inside out, so that time goes backwards for us. What, for Soviet official consciousness, was an incomplete project, a perspective, has become, for us, the past that is attractive because of it has already been accomplished.
Alexei: Yes, and a similar knot ties us with the West – we switched places with it, having built consumer capitalism and allowing the West to establish and expand its control over both our minds and social solidarity. Such is the ideological underside of our legitimacy and subjectivity. But the zigzags of our representations gradually freeze into a new constellation.
Oxana: And I thought that I am attached to myself by my reflection in you. And also by those strange countries, turned inside out, that open up to me in the void of dreaming.
Alexei: Your interior soviets…
Oxana: My Morphean universities…
Artiom Magun (born 1974) is a philosopher based in Petersburg. He is a member of the workgroup Chto delat/What is to be done?