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#6: Revolution or Resistance

Alexander Tarasov, Alexei Penzin // Opposition, Resistance, Revolution

AP: In recent times, the Left has been talking about “resistance”. Ranging from the names of activist groups to the texts of the Leftist press, “resistance” is everywhere. Is this simply a moral position? That is, under the new rigid conditions of neo-liberalism, just when it seemed that all was lost, we will continue to stand up for what we believe is right. If we articulate our resistance in the sphere of culture or in everyday life, it is because we don’t have the possibility for expressing our protest in politics, not to mention for changing the situation in any cardinal way through our actions. To me, this seems like a hidden trap. First of all, we derive a colossal amount of narcissist pleasure for our (supposed) non-conformism; second of all, we receive rather tangible bonuses, finding our selves in the system one way or another…

AT: Historically, as we know, the term is connected to the Second World War and with the French resistance to the Fascist occupation. The situation was as follows: the movement’s founding members understood that they personally would not be able to count on victory. As the main theoretician of the Résistance, Sartre explained that this was “the uprising of conscience” or “the moral uprising”. Either you lose your sense of self, trampling your own dignity underfoot, or you resist. The philosophical basis for the Résistance was not speculative, but was born in praxis. In France , the first few waves of the Résistance were completely swept away by the Fascists; everybody was arrested or killed. It was only later that the Résistance was able to establish an underground network, an infrastructure, when the Maquis formed as partisan brigades in the forests of unoccupied France etc. But in the beginning, the Résistance was a feat of desperation . This – heroic – understanding of resistance has not grown obsolete in any way; it is still relevant today.

AP: In recent times, the Left has been talking about “resistance”. Ranging from the names of activist groups to the texts of the Leftist press, “resistance” is everywhere. Is this simply a moral position? That is, under the new rigid conditions of neo-liberalism, just when it seemed that all was lost, we will continue to stand up for what we believe is right. If we articulate our resistance in the sphere of culture or in everyday life, it is because we don’t have the possibility for expressing our protest in politics, not to mention for changing the situation in any cardinal way through our actions. To me, this seems like a hidden trap. First of all, we derive a colossal amount of narcissist pleasure for our (supposed) non-conformism; second of all, we receive rather tangible bonuses, finding our selves in the system one way or another…

AT: Historically, as we know, the term is connected to the Second World War and with the Frenchresistance to the Fascist occupation. The situation was as follows: the movement’s founding members understood that they personally would not be able to count on victory. As the main theoretician of the Résistance, Sartre explained that this was “the uprising of conscience” or “the moral uprising”. Either you lose your sense of self, trampling your own dignity underfoot, or you resist. The philosophical basis for the Résistance was not speculative, but was born in praxis. In France , the first few waves of the Résistance were completely swept away by the Fascists; everybody was arrested or killed. It was only later that the Résistance was able to establish an underground network, an infrastructure, when the Maquis formed as partisan brigades in the forests of unoccupied France etc. But in the beginning, the Résistance was a feat of desperation . This – heroic – understanding of resistance has not grown obsolete in any way; it is still relevant today.

AP : But is this strictly ethical interpretation really all that productive? Are there any other ways of thinking resistance? For an example, one could create different logical relations between “resistance” and “revolutionary struggle”. One could oppose them to one another, negating one and bringing the other to forefront. One could speak of resistance as a kind of hidden petit bourgeois conformism. One could also accuse the advocates of revolutionary struggle of irresponsible utopianism and phraseology. Or, then again, one could see both them “dialectically”, as different phases in one and the same process. Which position do you feel closest to and how would you substantiate it?

AT: Today, the word “resistance” is used by all sorts of people, balancing out its meaning. In reality, there are three forms of countering power, the regime, the repressive institutions, the triumph of capitalism – whatever you want to call the Powers that Be. These are: 1. opposition, 2. resistance, and 3. revolution. Opposition is when you speak out “against” but within the framework of the System, when you are ready to play according to its rules. You can be as radical as you like in your critique, but until you stop acting according to the rules, you will only be in opposition , nothing more. Opposition has no perspective. The rules themselves are made to ensure the System’s victory; they have been formulated to make the opponent lose. If he “wins” – i.e. takes power – he is reborn completely in a form that is no longer dangerous, as a nominal opponent. Parliamentary struggle, which many people among the Left love so much, is a classical example. Resistance is when you stop playing according to the System’s rules and begin to create zones, gardens, territories, where the rules of the System are no longer in direct operation – places where they can’t force you to obey…

AP : This sounds a lot like the popular anarchist idea of “autonomous zones”.

AT: No, not really. Hakim Bey’s idea is complete nonsense. The purest paradigm of resistance can be found in the partisan brigade, where the rules of the opponent are no longer in effect. The same could be said of the underground. You could also see the creation of theories that the opponent cannot understand similarly. To speak in the “old” language of the Frankfurt School rather than the new language of the “autonomous” anarchists, you are autonomous when you are no longer transparent . The underground is the zone of opacity. Power can only guess at what is going on down there; it can only be certain in retrospect, more or less, but it cannot really influence these processes. Whenever such zones that are opaque to power take arms to defend themselves actively against the System’s attempts to liquidate them, this is real resistance. Resistance is all about the creation and defense of such zones.

AP : So how is it possible to speak about revolution, using the notions that you have suggested as a point of departure?

AT: When the opponent begins his strategic offensive and you defend yourself, this is still resistance. But when you take the strategic offensive, this is already revolution . There is a direct connection between revolution and resistance; it is often difficult to catch the moment in which one becomes the other. I’ll give you an historical example. When the narodniki (= an agrarian socialist movement active from the 1860s to the end of the 19th century) formed an underground and worked out their own theories, this was already resistance, because they weren’t living according to the System’s rules. According to the rules of the System, in legal life, they were students, teachers or whatever. When they “went to the people” (=to teach, provide health-care, and politically educate), they were also still resisting, because they were simply trying to expand the zone that wasn’t under governmental control. But when the People’s Will faction took up the tactics of terrorist struggle with the goal of forcing the government to ratify a constitution – this was their concrete goal – they had already become revolutionaries. When the Social Revolutionaries and the Social Democrats began to set up their circles, they already began at quite a high stage of resistance, because they were setting up their circles in the underground . This phase lasted up to 1905, when the underground took up its strategic offensive.

AP : But you wouldn’t say that the forms of struggle you’ve spoken of – opposition, resistance, revolution – are simply stages in a “dialectic” process?

AT: These forms can appear as sequential steps of one and the same process, but they can also fail to appear completely. It all depends on the concrete situation. As I have already said, there is a direct connection between resistance and revolution. Opposition and parliamentary struggles can go on for ever. But the opposition can find itself in symbiosis with the resistance: consider, for an example, the relationship between Shin-Fain and the IRA, or, much earlier, the Social Revolutionaries’ underground party (including the Combat Organization), which had ties with the legal Duma party of the “People’s Socialists”. This kind of thing happens when the state finds itself in a situation in which it cannot prohibit such tactical means of cooperation, or when it actually hopes to “illuminate” the underground with its help. Both sides attempt to emerge victorious from the legal battleground.

AP : It is hardly any coincidence that the word “resistance” was born during the war. In your analysis, you constantly use military terminology.

AT: Struggle does not always necessarily mean armed struggle. But resistance leads to “war” because when you stop following the System’s rules, you become a “social separatist”. The System cannot allow this to happen by instinct , just like an instinctively bourgeois state cannot allow geographical “separatism”.

AP : Can one see resistance in different registers or phases?

AT: Certainly. The first stage – preceding the formation of circles – is when people become conscious of their situations through analysis and the formation theories. The second stage begins with the constitution of underground groups, such as little circles or cells. While they are often not yet active politically, they develop ideologies and strategies. Later, they find one another and unite in a certain “nation-wide” structure, although this structure doesn’t have to be a political party. Each historical stage has produced its own adequate, successful form of revolutionary organization. They vary greatly, from the clubs at the time of the French Revolution to the partisans of the Sandinista, for an example. The forms changes because the System will always find ways of fighting against every new type of revolutionary grouping. These concrete forms of revolutionary organization become obsolete as soon as the System is able to find the proper antidote. They are all formed through experimentation. Why were the revolutionary clubs of the French Revolution so effective? Because they discussed politics publicly; the politics of the “ancien regime” took place backstage; its actors were not capable of appearing in public polemics. So why did the clubs become ineffective later on? Because the regime found an antidote, namely prohibition: it was possible to prohibit and disband them without any trouble at all. The revolutionary process had run into a dead-end until the invention of new forms of revolutionary organization – the Carbonari, for an instance, who were successful in their revolutionary activity throughout the 1820-30s. The system didn’t know how to fight against these groups until it created a network of secret services, all of them in competition with one another. This is purely empirical fact. The moment a previous paradigm collapses, it forces the search for a new paradigm. You search for this new paradigm by sacrificing yourself, becoming the subject of your own experiment, testing what will be capable of destroying the system through trial and error. This demands much personal bravery. It was impossible to destroy the underground completely, because this place gathered people with moral qualities that the agents of the System did not have.

AP : How would you assess the small groups of left-wing activists – Trotskyites, anarchists – in today’s Russia ? They are in fact quite active, and they certainly don’t play “parliamentary games”. Have they reached the phase of resistance?

AT: While they may not play the parliamentary game, they have not been capable of creating their own zone of opacity. They are completely transparent, besieged by intelligence agencies, riddled with informers. When it became necessary to arrest Limonov (=Russian poet and activist, leader of the National Bolshevik Party), they were able to take him right away. It turned out that his apartment was crawling with “bugs” and that his party’s leadership had been infiltrated by a provocateur. The only case of resistance on post-Soviet territory took place in Transdniestria. They were the first ones to overthrow the Soviet bureaucracy. It was because of this situation that the worker’s collectives practically were able to take power into their own hands and proved capable of resisting when the Soviet nomenclatura tried to dictate the rules of fair play. But for this situation to become something with a greater perspective, they had to present a viable social alternative and take the strategic offensive, which they were not able to do.

AP : Opacity is an important criterion.

AT: No doubt it is, because in fact, the other side is just as opaque to the forces of revolution and to the population at large. The intelligence agencies operate as legal underground organizations, armed to the teeth. They have the legal right to use “underground” force.

AP : So what exactly is the problem under today’s conditions? What is preventing real hotbeds of authentic resistance from appearing? Is it the tactical concentration of the forces of observation and control, or is there some deeper historical reason?

AT: I think it’s the absence of revolutionary experience, of any revolutionary tradition. In the case of the Bolsheviks and their allies, this tradition went way back to the 1860s. The revolution was preceded by over half a century of resistance. After all, we live under pathological conditions. The counterrevolution has triumphed for nearly a century, beginning with Stalin’s Thermidore from 1927 to 1937. The revolutionary tradition has been drying up since more than 70 years. Right now, we are confronted with a strange situation. On the one hand, the Left is practically thrown back into the stage preceding the formation of circles, although there are all kinds of ostensibly left-wing political parties here (beginning with the KPRF, Russia’s Communist Party), which attract all of the people’s oppositional feeling. Even the tiniest groups dreams of becoming a political party a la KPRF, not even considering the question of whether the party might not be an obsolete form of revolutionary organization. Today, any underground community has reached a higher stage of development than these legal parties.

AP : You’ve made a rather serious correction to the notion of resistance. It doesn’t sound at all like the way it is used in the ideology of the academic Left.

AT: Their “resistance” is nothing but pure opposition. They are playing a game on enemy territory, according to their opponent’s rules. All of these games are doomed to failure and can only supply the player with some kind of moral satisfaction, with the illusion that he is still “clean” in some way.

AP : How do you tell which technologies from the huge archive of resistance are still valid or revolutionary today?

AT: Everything is decided by trial-and-error. You have to experiment. You also have to remember that the situation in general is changing; the opponent is equipped with new technologies. By the same token, it’s obvious that the previous paradigm has exhausted itself. The movement of the Left is a state of creative crisis. 1968 was the manifestation of the Left’s crisis, the moment in which the crisis made its first appearance. By 1968, a new generation of Leftists had come of age. They didn’t want to entertain theories that were outdated, and they didn’t accept organizational forms that had already been established and ossified in the 1920s and 1930s. But this generation was not able to suggest new effective forms because it was marginal even to the world of the Left at large. 1968 is a flare-up that indicates the end of an historical cycle. What follows, from roughly 1975 onward, is nothing but degradation. Even “antiglobalism” is hardly a way out or a new rise of the Left, as some claim. Quite on the contrary: the “antiglobalist” movement took on its shape because the forces of social reaction and neoliberalism turned out to be so powerful and aggressive that they herded all of their Leftist opponents onto a tiny reservation, where they were forced to notice one another and to begin working together. This is not a result of “the easy life”, but a symptom of crisis. But crisis is a good state to be in, because it is the only thing that makes development possible.

28.07.2004

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