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#9: What do we have in common?

Dmitri Gutov – David Riff /// Complete agreement is the ideal of the human race

David Riff (DR): How did the Lifshitz (1) Institute form? Was it your own initiative? Or did the group come together collectively? Could you tell me a little about how you came together?

Dmitri Gutov (DG): The “Lifshitz” Institute was conceived as a social movement that concerned the discovery of a new phenomenon, namely Soviet Marxism, primarily of the 1930s. A small number of people discovered that there was, in fact, such a phenomenon, a phenomenon that was completely original, substantial, completely incomprehensible and forgotten. Our idea was to re-read old Marxist texts with new eyes, as the final chord of the Communist drama was fading.

David Riff (DR): How did the Lifshitz (1) Institute form? Was it your own initiative? Or did the group come together collectively? Could you tell me a little about how you came together?

Dmitri Gutov (DG): The “Lifshitz” Institute was conceived as a social movement that concerned the discovery of a new phenomenon, namely Soviet Marxism, primarily of the 1930s. A small number of people discovered that there was, in fact, such a phenomenon, a phenomenon that was completely original, substantial, completely incomprehensible and forgotten. Our idea was to re-read old Marxist texts with new eyes, as the final chord of the Communist drama was fading.

David Riff (DR): How did the Lifshitz (1) Institute form? Was it your own initiative? Or did the group come together collectively? Could you tell me a little about how you came together?

Dmitri Gutov (DG): The “Lifshitz” Institute was conceived as a social movement that concerned the discovery of a new phenomenon, namely Soviet Marxism, primarily of the 1930s. A small number of people discovered that there was, in fact, such a phenomenon, a phenomenon that was completely original, substantial, completely incomprehensible and forgotten. Our idea was to re-read old Marxist texts with new eyes, as the final chord of the Communist drama was fading.

All of this happened toward the end of the 1980s. Many people probably still remember what was going on in the country at the time: anti-communism was rampant. If you read Lenin, people looked at you as if you were an idiot, and if you chose works that were written during the epoch of Stalinism, it simply seemed scandalous. The “Institute” was founded on the initiative of Kostya Bokhorov and myself. It was very important to find at least one other person to discuss what actually interested me. But we didn’t found any kind of formal organization.

By the early 1990s, public disinterest in and mockery of Marxism had reached its apogee. It was then that Kostya and I decided to turn our efforts into an organization, to search for allies. The shelling of the parliament in the autumn of 1993 and the complete triumph of liberalism only made us even more determined. The name “Lifshitz-Institute” appeared in early 1994. At this point, our meetings attracted an extremely broad and colorful group of people: students, political activists, doctors of art history, professors of philosophy, Duma representatives, radical artists.

Our idea was very simple. All we wanted to do was to drop a seed (who, for us, was Lifshitz) into the solution of the time, so that related phenomena would crystallize around it. It was our goal to collect those who were interested in classical Marxism and the communist view of art. All of the meetings that took place then had me in a state of constant stress. I just can’t convey exactly how unfavorable the times were to our idea. It seemed impossible to find any common language, and the perspective of spreading Lifshitz to any kind of broader public seemed incredibly dim.

After 2000-2001, when the situation changed yet again, there was a new upwind of interest in Marxism, and we continued our vigil with the next post-Perestroika generation.

DR: How exactly does the institute work? Which role do discussions and collective activities play in your work as an institute?

DG: For the last years, we have been working in two modes. The first of these is when we gather in our narrow circle of 7 to 9 people and hold our discussions at feasts of friends, usually talking about texts that we have selected in advance. It is our deep conviction that we need to restore the rights of elementary axioms, which is why we select our authors correspondingly: Hegel, Marx, Lenin.

The basic principle of this practice is the construction of human relationships in which, to use Hegel’s magnificent expression, you “feel at home”. Ever since the “Lifshitz Institute” arose, we have been searching and constructing these kinds of surroundings. Every personal obsession finds its place as long as there is agreement with regard to the general goal, which is to discover something that was unjustly forgotten in the speechless world of the Soviet past.

Our second mode of working consists in organizing social events in public space, to which we invite anyone who is interested. For an example, we held a public discussion of Lifshitz’s article “Phänomenologie der Konservenbüchse” at an Andy Warhol exhibition in the gallery Stella Arts. Or, another example: we arranged a presentation of Lukacs’ “History and Class Consciousness”, which had appeared in Russian for the very first time. From the point of view of reaching a deeper understanding of the subject’s essence, these events are more reminiscent of parties than of serious discussion. Their aim is popularization.

Another distinct activity consists in the organization of exhibitions. For an example, we held an exhibition dedicated to the 20 year anniversary of Lifshitz’s death at the ArtKlyazma festival in 2003. This exhibition was prepared in an intensive email correspondence, fragments of which have been published. This correspondence included all of the institute’s participants and is a free exchange of ideas, suggestions and analyses of the artistic situation in Moscow at the time. This is a great document, a document I hold dear.

DR: Which role do creative differences or disagreements play in the Institute’s work? Do they add anything to the understanding of Lifshitz?

DG: In 1994-1995, we lived in a situation of permanent, heated disputes. This was hardly very effective. This is not why the “Institute” was founded. Lifshitz once noted that complete agreement is the ideal of the human race. He said this in 1970, when dissident culture and free-thinking had reached its apex. This is one of our most basic principles: complete agreement. You  might think that this is dogmatic, if you like. But we only argue with our outer surrounding. There is no place for argument within the community.

There is a certain threshold of agreement on fundamental positions, beyond which any discussion is inappropriate and impossible. Actually, this is where what is most valuable begin. Our talks begin to reveal meanings that eluded us until then. For an instance, Kostya Bokhorov is currently studying Aristotle in preparation for one piece, which is something I never had time for, and has pointed me in the direction of those passages that influenced Lifshitz. Or, another example: Kirill Chelushkin recently found a rare book of different interviews with Picasso, published in the Russian language in 1957, which also helps to clarify certain passages in Liftshitz’ critique of Cubism. In order to repay my debt to my colleagues, I told them about Marx’ letters to Arnold Ruge from 1843, which also explain a great deal on Lifshitz’s work in general.

All of this has nothing at all to do with differences or disagreements, which are completely counterproductive to our activities. Actually, if someone doesn’t agree with Lifshitz’s aesthetic views, he simply isn’t a member of the “Institute”; if he agrees, then there is no place for arguments. All deviations are understood as diversions or pathologies, and are not subject to discussion. The word “pluralism” is not popular in our group.

DR: Does your interpretation of Lifshitz add anything to Lifshitz?
How can you add anything to Lifshitz? It isn’t interpretation that we strive for. Understanding is what is demanded of us. Go into any big bookstore in Moscow, New York or London and you will find innumerable reserves of books that will only grow in geometric progression. To navigate this ocean, you need maps, one of which the “Lifshitz Institute” is in the process of creating. What is required of us is the drafting of such an atlas, so that anyone who is not indifferent to Marxism and its relationship to art could use it to locate and reach this island in the ocean’s midst. A rational being will realize that these books are presenting something incredibly valuable; all he has to do is to open them. Thus, the only real challenge is to make people aware of their existence. Our goal is far more modest than to add something to Marxism.

DR: How important are opponents or “others” to the Lifshitz Institute? For an example, Tolya Osmolovsky, who’ve you been in a dialogue with for many years? How important is he is as an antipode? And can such antipodes add something to your understanding of Liftshitz? Can communities like the Lifshitz-Institute exist in a vacuum?

DG: If the “Lifshitz Institute” were to exist in a vacuum, it would simply wither and die. In this sense, Osmolovsky is the most important of elements. With his ceaseless outbursts and incursions. In this particular case, he presents the kind of opposition that forces us to defend ourselves and to re-read texts that already seemed to clear in their meaning. Actually, many of Lifshitz’s own works were written in bitter polemics with his opponents, which literally forced him to formulate an entire series of assumption in a harsher, more clear-cut form. This applies to both the literary discussions of the 1930s and the discussions of the notion of “modernism” during the 1970s. By the way, many of Marx’s most important works also arose from polemics with his opponents.

Of course, we need to understand here that arguments can never open anyone’s eyes. If you’ve spent many years in thinking through one subject or another, it is highly unlikely that someone from the side will point you toward something you haven’t noticed before or something that you haven’t yet understood. But even completely senseless, dilettantish judgments force you to concentrate. But little more. We need to understand the difference between the negation of negation and the affirmation of the affirmative.

DR: Many contemporary neo- and post-Marxists follow Derrida’s maxim that there is not one but many Marx, defined by multiple readings and deconstructions. How important is the diversity brought on by such re-readings to the development of Marxism as a whole?

DG: Among all of the diverse views, the “Lifshitz Institute” is only interested in views that correspond to those of the “Lifshitz Institute”. The institute was not founded in order to enrich the world with yet another shade of Marxism. As far as the quickly changing world is concerned, the Institute aims at preserving what was once already gained. Not improving it, but preserving it in its pure form. Under the conditions of the most possible hostile environment, the most effective action is anabiosis. Grandiose efforts that attempt to preserve the phenomenon of life for better times. Seen from the outside, this might seem like passive existence, something like the wise silence of medieval monks. One might say that Lifshitz is Marxism in its state of anabiosis.

DR: Your opponents accuse you of being a sect.

DG: This definition would be rather senseless. There are sects and then there are sects. What do the authors of this accusation actually want to say? If we’re talking about a system of inner limitations, then yes, this system is especially strong with the “Lifshitz Institute”. Anyone in search of a breadth of views will go to some other place.But as the ancients claimed, nothing great can arise without limitations.
On the other hand, our community’s doors are always open to those who are ready for these kinds of limitations.

1) Mikhail Lifshitz (1905-1983) was a hard-line Marxist philosopher and aesthetician of the Soviet period. Unlike many of his contemporaries of the 1920s, Lifshitz remained highly critical of the avantgarde’s utopian program and dedicated himself to the study of Hegel and Marx, criticizing both Stalinist aesthetics for their descent into stereotypical banality and the incumbent late modernism of the 1960s as a symptom for the decadence of capitalist society.

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