1. The Specter of Anarchism

In recent years, one can observe a deep-seated paradigm shift in the theories of the Left. While many theorists keep their steadfast attention focused on the problem of power, they also see it as something autonomous of its socio-economic base. Moreover, they feel that power cannot be reduced to its traditional representations such as the state or the juridical figure of sovereignty. Instead, it envelops all spheres of life. This, in turn, has spurred a critical re-evaluation of the notion of revolution. As a project centered on government take-overs, the revolution appears as something that loses sight over all the other zones in which power is implemented. Entangled in the mechanism of political sovereignty, it seems doomed to inevitable failure. In search of a way out of this dead-end, the Left abandons the project of revolution altogether or modifies it beyond recognition, orienting itself toward the creation of counter-power through society’s self-organization, which will change the world, not only at some point in the future, but here-and-now as well. This re-invention of a world without power may be appear as a collective fiction, admit its proponents, but active participation will turn today’s fiction into tomorrow’s reality.

No matter how attractive this new projection seems, it is something that political or philosophical thought that departs from Marx will find highly dubious. Even if today’s discussion of “interstitial revolution” (as in Holloway, see this issue) may be couched in up-to-date forms of political and theoretical language, it still seems very reminiscent of certain themes and discussions carried out in the second half of the 19th century, namely the polemic exchanges between Marx and Bakunin, between Marxism and anarchism. For the purposes of this text, we are working from the assumption that the main points of this discussion still retain their significance today. In the following, we will offer our own critical notes on this age-old polemic and its unlikely reappearance.

2. The Flipside of October

Today’s search for a political project that could avoid the snares of the past prompts an excursion into the history of revolution, a history of many defeats and tragic episodes. One of these episodes is the Kronstadt Uprising of 1921. Historically, the naval base Kronstadt near Petersburg was one of the epicenters of the October Revolution, but only a few years later, its sailors – who were organized into revolutionary councils – rose up against the state that the revolution had founded. Their slogan: “All Power to the Soviets, and not to the Parties!”

Refusing and ignoring the historical-concrete logic of the civil war, the sailors of Kronstadt proclaimed an immediate return to “the ideals of the revolution”, but in the light of the general situation in Russia at the time, their gestures of sovereignty – such as congratulating the USA on the election of a new president – seem rather comical. However, to follow the vein of the “18th Brumaire”, and to assert that Kronstadt 1921 was little more than a farcical replay of the October Revolution, would probably be a little harsh.

Then again, the notion of replay could be understood in a far more positive sense. The slogan of “All Power to the Soviets and not to the Parties” seems to anticipate the collapse of state socialism at the moment of its inception, pointing toward its reason, namely a chronic lack of solidarity and engagement as a result of the subordination of self-government to the party’s administrative apparatus. In this sense, Kronstadt can be misread as a figure for the political potential that the Soviet state was never able to tap into completely.

At the same time, the desperation of the Kronstadt sailor’s attempt to implement the principle of total self-organization (here-and-now) inverts the voluntarism of the October Revolution by rising up against its inevitable consequences – of war communism, and later, NEP and socialism in one country – in another act of the (collective) micro-political will. In this sense, it is the flip-side of the political myth that legitimized the sovereignty of the Soviet state.

But the Third Revolution never came. The question of its potentiality’s further fate may yet be undecided. But now that capitalism has been “restored” to Russia, its context has become even more complex. After all, once Kronstadt becomes a symbol for the “Third Revolution” – even on the level of political representation – it confirms itself as a symbol of the political, “metaphysical” will, which refuses to follow the paths according to which history organizes itself. This representation of Kronstadt disavows those real processes of self-organization as production that took place in the sailor’s councils, and it also ignores all of the real micropolitical antagonisms that unfolded there. Once the event is codified as an apocryphal episode of an alternate history, its social reality is lost somewhere in the archive, among a slew of primary sources. What is important is the slogan, the representation, the name itself, which expresses history’s tragic progression, its lost possibilities. Kronstadt becomes a melancholic figure. Which doesn’t exactly upon the path for unleashing its true political potentiality.

3. The Political Fiction of the Will

But there is another way of looking at the Kronstadt Uprising of 1921. “Looking for ways forward” (Holloway) from today, Kronstadt 1921 can be read as a (collective) “political fiction”, in all positive and negative meanings of the phrase. Our working notion of the “political fiction” rests upon the assumption that this or that political representation cannot be naturalized: it is always produced as an instrument of forming reality. In the social process, it appears as a figure through which a given group of people represent their collective subjectivity and implement a certain “micro-political” will to change the status quo. This figure always fluctuates on the boundary between codification and the tendency to lead a life of its own, transforming reality through a process of collective authorship, “self-organizing” in the sense that its policies are no longer geared toward some “Big Other”, but toward many singular others. Yet the codification of this myth means that it becomes a pure representation, in which the moment of production has been erased: a stereotype, a political myth, an ideology or a utopia, losing all of its performativity. This replacement is always based on an obvious or less obvious insertion of a more traditional “macropolitical” will, which expresses the logic of the state’s sovereignty, the people, the “movement” etc.

Since the political fiction mistrusts the “grand narratives” of political representation so deeply, it constantly runs danger of ignoring the “grand narrative”, of becoming ahistorical. Ahistoricism, incidentally, is a quality of anarchism’s entire resistance to the alienation of industrial society (the old dream of communes and phalastres), but this timeless idyll stands in stark contrast to the real history of anarchism, a history of transitory and confused protests against some eternal, abstract exploitation and dominance. This confrontation between idealism beyond history and the brutal reality of “history’s iron logic” reveals the essence of anarchism’s main contradiction, which the Kronstadt Uprising expresses rather compactly. Like Barcelona 1937, Kronstadt is an event that flees history as “reality”, a short flash of the imaginative, aimed against the eternal (symbolic) status quo.

The political fiction of the possibility for a revolution here-and-now has always been a bone of contention, especially if this revolution promotes some “general will”, expressing the historical necessities in the moment it is conceived. In this light, anarchism’s political fiction appears as an expression of the implacable will, a voluntarist-vitalist construction of reality. This is why Marxist intellectuals have also been so adverse to the anarchist interpretation of Kronstadt. Not because of loyalty to “party doctrine”, but this kind of anarchist “will” is constructed according to the same model of sovereignty against which it rebels. Its calls for an “alternate ontology” here and now turn out to be illusory, as soon as the mechanism of sovereignty is laid bare.

This is exactly how one could read Marx’ critique of Bakunin. The fiction of a potential social revolution in agrarian Russia of the 19th century can be read as a typical representation of the will: “[Bakunin] understands absolutely nothing about the social revolution, only its political phrases. Its economic conditions do not exist for him. […] He wants the European social revolution, premised on the economic basis of capitalist production, to take place at the level of the Russian or Slavic agricultural and pastoral peoples […] The will, and not the economic conditions, is the foundation of his social revolution.”


4. Symptom in transit

It is in connection to this complicated context that anarchism takes on its contemporary political meaning. But let’s turn from “useful fictions” to reality. What exactly is “anarchism” in theory and praxis today?

Aside from a few names from the hazy anthologies of “radical thought”, there is actually no such thing as a “contemporary theory of anarchism”. But nevertheless, certain common notions connected to anarchism find an unexpected continuation in the theories of the last decades: the critique of representation, including all representations on the political field, the uncovering of the “micropolitical” dimension of power, the politics of “micro-groups”, and direct resistance. This is why recent appearance of books with names like “From Bakunin to Lacan” are hardly surprising. First, we are told that in Bakunin’s polemic with Marx, power did not simply appear as a superstructural effect or an instrument of class hegemony, that it was not localized in the apparatus of the state, but that it was an integral part of the church, family, and political parties. And then, we hear that even the earliest authors of this (anarchist) tradition subjected the figure of representation – and its political embodiment in the form of representative democracy – to an exacting critical analysis.

In this way, we can constate the new attraction of a hidden “anarchist” tradition, which is revived in a more refined form and in other, more heterogeneous types of discourse, under other names. This implicit and anonymous “anarchism” begins to vocalize its pretenses toward innovation and alternative, almost demanding hegemony. But all the while, anarchism in the narrow sense remains marginalized, while its themes drift in the direction of other social movements, such as the environmental movement, for an example. (Not to mention its less attractive sides such as its function as a “pressure valve” for venting the adolescent hyperactivity of teenagers, and – speaking more broadly – its capitalization by mass culture, through the consumption of images that offers all those industrial office worker a compensatory insubordination kick.)

Either way, one can see that anarchism has been displaced in two ways: while it has been marginalized in praxis, it also undergoes theoretical valorization “elsewhere”, giving it the status of a (discursive) symptom. It seems that this is how it should be understood, as a symptom, as the “anarchical” rather than as historical and political “anarchism” proper, which has been dislocated and dispersed into other fields.

5. Beyond Sovereignty?

If one continues the motion from fiction to reality, one cannot help but ask which socio-political constellations give rise to this symptom. Here, one could remember the basic quality that Marx attributed to the “petit bourgeoisie”. Its position is transitory: it hangs between the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat”, caught in a state of unstable balance, between the tendency toward becoming bourgeois (subjectively) and becoming proletarian (objectively, in what is called “precarization” today), expressing a self-contradictory mixture of class-interests. The unstable structure of this interest-cocktail leads to a revolt “against all parties”, but this revolt is hardly sober in its protest against all historical forces and powers. Whatever one might say about the “blurring” of classes of the former “Fordist” society (actually little more than the diffusion of earlier social representations), hired labor has taken on a universal form, even its content has become “immaterial labor” in certain areas. Marx was right in his prognosis on the final proletarianization of the petit bourgeoise. By now, the petit bourgeoisie has become a purely structural difference, a migrating, dislocated class-boundary, which no longer has any real carriers of its own and corresponds to little more than the prosloika, a layer inbetween, (let’s leave the political fiction of the “middle class” to the liberals). Much in the same way, the “anarchistic” quality loses its political agents and disperses as a constant symptomatic suspension.

However, to be fair, it makes sense to mention the ongoing transformation of the state, whose total criticism was one of the distinctive features of 19th century anarchism. It is doubtful whether one can really be so certain in speaking of the blurring of state sovereignty under the conditions of world-economy. But it certainly does make sense to agree that its stability has been shaken considerably. It is this context that gives rise to the theory of the “multitude” as a new form for political subjectivity, stripped of the state’s “political theology”. The “multitudes” – as opposed to the people – are beyond the state by the virtue of their very being, even though they can formally consist of the state’s subjects. Here, the state is no longer as controvertible an enemy as it was for Bakunin and his followers. The problem is that there is nothing to controvert, since the multitude is already “beyond” the state. The very mode of the multitude’s being is defined by the degree to which is a-national, an-archic.

In this sense, “anarchism” is undergoing a transformation, drifting from opposition to domination to its own kind of ontological embodiment. Does this embodiment (much of it fictional, to be honest) divest it of a large part of its problematique? It is more likely that this is yet another trick of history: the ironic annihilation of the anarchist thesis, which lives out its spectral existence under the name of new political and theoretical alternatives. We need to be more aware of all the traps that these alternatives set in trying to defuse the snares and pitfalls that were already there.

Alexei Penzin, born 1974 in Novgorod, philosopher, political analyst, writer, member of the workgroup “What is to be done”. Lives in Moscow

David Riff, born 1975 in London, art critic, translator, writer, member of the workgroup “What is to be done?”. Lives in Moscow and Berlin.