Hedonism and Revolution: The Barricade and the Dancefloor
Will true pleasure only exist after the revolution, or will it be indispensable to lead to the revolution?
Ever since the project of universal emancipation through communist revolution existed there has been a tension between two approaches – a dichotomy of views of people who ostensibly want to reach the same goal. On the one hand we find a view that could be summarized as: Only the revolution will bring about real pleasure and fulfillment, and we have to be ascetic cadres to reach it. The other side seems to declare that: Only by developing pleasures and following our desires will the revolution even become a possibility. If we look back at the two main phases of revolutionary struggles in the last century (ca. 1917-1923 and ca. 1967-77, depending in which country), we can easily see that for many revolutionaries the idea that hedonism and revolution should go together was present and central to the whole project.
Closely related to this is the way the role of work is seen. Marx says in the third volume of Capital: “The empire of freedom begins indeed only there, where work which is defined by misery and external expediency, ceases…” (“Das Reich der Freiheit beginnt in der Tat erst da, wo das Arbeiten, das durch Not und äußere Zweckmässigkeit bestimmt ist, aufhört.”) He leaves no doubt that the empire of freedom is always built on an empire of necessity, but also that it is the human goal to achieve the most freedom possible. And this must include the abolishment of wage labor.
“The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution”.
Sergey Nechayev:„Revolutionary Catechism“ (1869)
Sergey Nechayev set the pace for an ascetic image of the revolutionary that would be picked up by the direct heirs of Bakuninism: the Leninists. First of all, the revolutionary is a man. He as such resembles the hero or anti-hero in the western, which is the epitomy of masculinity. He has no desires as a person, and he only has a mission for which the end justifies the means. The “ideal” man has only one passion – the revolution – yet it is he who is supposed to bring about a society of human fulfillment. But this was something that had to go wrong, and the end came in the misery of the Maoist and Trotzkyist milieus.
A close associate of Nechayev, Mikhail Bakunin, had the phantasy that a small number of strategically placed revolutionaries would be able to start the revolution and run it in the form of an invisible dictatorship. This network has some surprisingly basic authoritarian ideas for an anarchist. One can see how it became the leading idea for an avant-garde party as espoused by the Bolsheviks that has led to the dictatorship of a party and not to the dictatorship of the proletariat as supposedly intended. Bakunin would probably try to deny the connection and his adepts would point out that his formulations were directed against the supposedly authoritarian organisation of Marx and his friends, but if we look at the wordings of Nechayev and Bakunin we can sense the specter of Lenin and Mao. According to Lenin’s understanding, the emotionless revolutionary did not have a human mother, but was given birth to by the party. The rigid structure and clandestine operation of this party, to some degree forced upon the Russian Social Democrats by the conditions of their struggle, became the model for the 3rd International and the various Communist Parties founded after the first World War in most countries around the world. As the party became the ruling organisation in Russia, the hierarchies became solidified, a new bureaucratic stratum developed, and finally the party apparatuses became purged of the revolutionaries.
„Revolution is when even one single human is dissatisfied. The state of this dissatisfaction unlocks the arsenal of revolution, the weapons and means for revolution, the source of strength of the motoric antagonism and the collective movement of contradiction, and the aim of revolution: Happiness.“ (“Die Revolution ist, auch wenn nur ein Mensch unzufrieden ist. Der Zustand dieser Unzufriedenheit schliesst das Arsenal der Revolution auf, die Waffen und Revolutionierungsmittel, die Kraftquelle des motorischen Widerspruchs und der gemeinsamen Widerspruchsbewegung, und das Revolutionsziel: das Glück.”)
Franz Jung: “And Again, The Meaning of Revolution”, in “The Technique of Happiness”
After the butchery of the first World War, a situation where capitalism had run its course in a unimaginable blood bath, the way seemed open for world revolution. The victory of the revolution in Russia opened up what seemed like endless possibilities. Despite the harrowing conditions of war communism that followed and the defeat of the revolution in Western Europe by ca. 1923, many attempts were made to extend the political and military victory not just to economics but also to the arts, to sexuality and to communal living.
The revolutionary flood of the first post war years produced many initiatives in the West, combining psychoanalysis with new artistic investigation and revolutionary politics. The surrealists re-discovered the writings of the Marquis de Sade and the utopian socialist Charles Fourier. De Sade of course describes in his writings the unleashing of libertinage in a society of domination. Fourier on the other hand extolls the qualities of free love in large communes he called Phalansteries. But when surrealist leader Andre Breton joined the Communist Party, this was not the revolutionary research the party wanted. They put him in a cell with workers of a gasworks and soon neutralized the input of the surrealists, some of who become ardent Stalinists and went on to write bad poetry in praise of historic materialism. Comparable to this was the tension between the Party officials and people like Wilhelm Reich. The KPD’s book service banned the distribution of Wilhelm Reich’s „The sexual struggle of youth“ (Der sexuelle Kampf der Jugend) in 1932 and expelled him soon after.
The Stalinist counter-revolution which emerged victoriously in the Soviet Union in the late 20’s was not only political, it was also a sexual, moral, literary and artistic counter-revolution. For example, in 1934 a law against homosexuality was re-introduced. The family policies of the Stalinist government became more and more conservative making both divorce and abortion a lot more difficult. The emancipatory project was beaten back.
Crushed by the blows of both fascist and stalinist counter-revolution (which was complete after the Spanish Civil War), the idea of universal emancipation survived in small circles. The combination of political with social, cultural and sexual revolutionary ideas slowly re-emerged after the war in fringe circles of the artistic avant-garde. By the mid-60’s the cold war had been going on for nearly two decades and a long-overdue critique of Bolshevism was coming out of the small left-communist circles and received a wider reception. Simultaneously there was a much wider youth culture developing again from small groups of beatniks or ‚gammler’ who had attempted to drop out in the decade before to the mass phenomenon of the Hippie movement. Take, for example, West Berlin: This city was still an island of the West in the middle of what was then the GDR. Many young West-Germans moved there to dodge the draft, and the university became a hotbed of agitation against the Vietnam war, the Nazi-past of the West German establishment, and the state of emergency laws passed at the time. The leading tendency in the West Berlin SDS saw itself as a self-proclaimed „anti-authoritarian“ tendency. There exists an interesting document authored by 4 of the main proponents of this tendency, called „Gespräch über die Zukunft“ where they phantasize about turning West Berlin into a council republic, and expected the proletariat of the third world to be their allies in the world revolution. These somewhat pompous perspectives in a city with a deeply ingrained anti-communist consensus may seem bizarre now, nevertheless, they had a lot of resonance at the time. Needless to say these authors barely had a class perspective in relation to West Berlin itself.
We witness a brief moment where apparently revolution could just be around the corner, and a cultural rupture seems to going hand in hand with a political rupture. A counter culture is developing with dozens of left wing bars, bookshops, communes. People grow their hair, and start dressing differently. They smoke dope expressing their own opposition to the post-Nazi society, where many old nazis are high up in the justice and political system. The idea of the counter culture as forming a nucleus of a future society in the here and now is manifestly tied to the political groups and struggles. It’s no wonder one of the first armed groups call themselves „Zentralrat der umherschweifenden Haschrebellen“ (“Central council of the nomadic hash rebels”).
Similar things are happening the world over. Maybe it’s a matter of quantity turning into quality, and what could merely be a consumer niche could turn into a counter culture. The author Walter Hollstein writes,”This means that the ‘underground’, if it doesn’t want to corrupt itself, has to manage the step from the subculture to the counter culture. Subculture here solely means the accidental dissensus from dominating culture, which in a temporary way expresses itself limited to its own clothing, fashion, group relations and behavior; counter culture means the manifest alternative in the arsenal of contradictions in this capitalist society.” Hollstein revises his judgement of the Underground from a previous sociological essay to a more positive view here, especially in light of the success of the underground press in the US. Going along with the politisation of the Hippies was the politisation of the underground press in the 60’s that boasted 500 titles and 5 million readers. This went hand in hand with a network of crisis centers, communes, free stores and farm collectives. By 1970 Hollstein sees a situation where the underground is not a phenomenon isolated from the general population anymore. He sees a “restructuring of social space” at work that is coming from “liberated terrains” which are defended against state repression. Nevertheless, Hollstein sees the terrain of social contestation not necessarily as something aiming at an immediate system change. It is about a long term process of social transformation with many possible setbacks.
However, the political scene and the counter culture are developing a problematic relationship. Both the American and the German SDS are spawning a number of purely political parties, or rather nuclei of parties. An analogue development to the German K-Groups happened in the disintegration of the US- SDS into tendencies such as the Progressive Labor Party, mirroring the elitist cadre concepts of the KPD, KPD/ML, the KBW, KABD, the PL/PI and what not. This phenomenon starts showing somewhat bizarre outgrowths. Each of these party-nuclei proclaim to be the true heirs to the historic Communist Party of Germany, based on the early 30’s phase of this party. Their rigorism goes all the way back to the Nechayev way of thinking on the glorification of the selfless party member. While the counter culture sees itself as a first frame of action where spontaneity, autonomy, self organisation and collective activity can be learned, the dogmatic K-groups, as they become to be known, criticize the counter cultural milieus as „subjectivist, individualist, putschist, utopian“. The counter cultural is accused of an aesthetisation of politics, which is a serious charge that directly references how Walter Benjamin characterized fascism.
The author Diethard Krebs counters this with an argument about the game and the ritual. Both are happenings that are repeated following certain rules, but the game can only be played by people who don’t suffer mortal shortages and in societies with an advanced ability to critique themselves. The game depends on freedom from fear. The ritual on the other hand has standardized regimentations and repetitions of orders causing normative behavior. It’s easy to find examples for these kind of forms in the drug culture as the game and the K-groups as strongly ritualized formations.
The fractions drift apart: cadre parties, rural communes, Maoism, and free love, agitating at the factory gate, and taking loads of drugs just go together less and less. At the same time the mainstream of society and culture is imbibing and recuperating more and more elements of the counter culture. Free love gets commodified as pornography, and supposedly subversive rock n’ roll stars are marketed by huge record companies. In the decades since then, tales from the “good old days” of the late 60’s, and ironically even memoirs about their days in the K-groups are part of a veritable industry of historification, at least in Germany.
As the elements of the revolutionary movement drifted apart, they also diminished. By the end of the 70’s the armed struggle had become the trajectory of social war with small minority groups eventually strengthening the state and the consensus of the citizens. On the other hand, sub-cultural strategies helped the rise of postmodernism and the disarming of revolution.
In the 1990’s we at Datacide and others tried to theorize the techno rave scene as a possible proletarian counter culture. For a moment the techno rave had this potential, but not more, and it is now lost. Much more than any „straight“ political direction, we saw in it the possibilities of self-organisation, collectivity and pursuit of pleasure in the counter culture around sound systems, anonymous white label records and illegal parties. This movement was strong enough – at least in the UK – to be directly targeted by laws and by the force of the police. Despite a politisation that did take place especially around the campaigns against the 1994 Criminal Justice Act and the Reclaim the Streets actions, these hopeful developments had run their course by the end of the decade.
In the past decade – despite the worsening crisis of international capitalism – the radical left is in disarray and extremely weak. Worse than that, some of its elements have at points aligned themselves with reactionary and fascist forces under the banner of anti-imperialism. One example amongst many is the British Socialist Workers Party entering an opportunist alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in the electoral front Respect. Suddenly basic emancipatory aims such as gay rights and women’s rights vanished in an attempt to forge a united front that supported the most reactionary forces such as Hamas or Hezbollah. These groups are financed by the theocracy of Iran where workers and student movements are savagely suppressed and the death penalty is used for „crimes against virtue“.
While we’re at an ebb of the revolutionary movement at the moment, things could look a lot different in 10 years. We don’t know yet how the movement will look, and how its international organisation would constitute itself. But we do know that it will not be an authoritarian cadre party, nor a tiny group hallucinating itself as an invisible dictatorship, nor united fronts with reactionary movements. Until then, a relentless critique has to be applied to everything in existence, as Marx put it, which is an exciting task because as Vaneigem says: „We have a world of pleasures to win and nothing to lose but boredom.“
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