Tatlin’s tower

Nico Israel has a book out that looks fairly interesting, Spirals: The Whirled Image in Twentieth Century Art and Literature. In it he discusses Wyndham Lewis’ vorticism, Vladimir Tatlin’s monument to the Third International, land Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (among other things). He also relates a few famous lines by Lenin about the spiraling course of the dialectic in history, from his 1915 Granat Encyclopedia entry on Karl Marx:

In our times, the idea of development, of evolution, has almost completely penetrated social consciousness, only in other ways, and not through Hegelian philosophy. Still, this idea, as formulated by Marx and Engels on the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, is far more comprehensive and far richer in content than the current idea of evolution is. A development that repeats, as it were, stages that have already been passed, but repeats them in a different way, on a higher basis (“the negation of the negation”), a development, so to speak, that proceeds in spirals, not in a straight line; a development by leaps, catastrophes, and revolutions; “breaks in continuity”; the transformation of quantity into quality; inner impulses towards development, imparted by the contradiction and conflict of the various forces and tendencies acting on a given body, or within a given phenomenon, or within a given society; the interdependence and the closest and indissoluble connection between all aspects of any phenomenon (history constantly revealing ever new aspects), a connection that provides a uniform, and universal process of motion, one that follows definite laws — these are some of the features of dialectics as a doctrine of development that is richer than the conventional one.

Marx and Engels were not the the first to put dialectical development in the shape of a spiral. As Lenin indicates, Hegel before him visualized it as such. There’s another source of the “whirled image” in Marx’s theory: Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi. Fredric Jameson pointed out in his recent book, Representing Capital, that “repetition — the selling of labor power week after week, its productive consumption by the capitalist in a cycle Sismondi rightly recharacterized as a spiral — never knew a first time in the first place.”


For Marx, the spiral motion first appears as circulating capital:

Exchange-value posited as the unity of commodity and money is capital, and this positing itself appears as the circulation of capital. (Which is, however, a spiral, an expanding curve, not a simple circle)…As the subject predominant [übergreifend] over the different phases of this movement, as value sustaining and multiplying itself in it, as the subject of these metamorphoses proceeding in a circular course — as a spiral, as an expanding circle — capital is circulating capital. Circulating capital is therefore initially not a particular form of capital, but is rather capital itself, in a further developed aspect, as subject of the movement just described, which it, itself, is as its own realization process.

In Capital, Marx explicitly acknowledged his debt to Sismondi in this respect: “Looked at concretely, accumulation can be resolved into the production of capital on a progressively increasing scale. The cycle of simple reproduction alters its form and, to use Sismondi’s expression, changes into a spiral.” Put another way, capital comes to ground this expansive outward movement, in which all sorts of violent jolts, fits, and spasms take place. Capital in history establishes a sort of treadmill pattern of transformation and reconstitution, as the sociologist Moishe Postone put it. Yet without its integral antithesis, class conscious wage-laborers mobilized in opposition to it, capital’s inherent dynamism is itself diminished. Adorno thus astutely observed in his 1965 lectures on History and Freedom: “Without wasting time on the overworked notion of a spiral development in history, it can be said that a direct progress towards freedom cannot be discerned.” (Rodney Livingstone suspected Adorno might have had Toynbee in mind, but I think he was commenting on the old Leninist dictum).

When Tatlin built his monument to the Third Revolution, progress did not seem such an impossibility. Though Europe lay in ruins, a new world seemed to open up. A hundred years on, this possibility seems by now closed. In our present moment, the key to the future resides in the past. Below are a few period pieces reflecting on Tatlin’s tower that express this bygone sensibility. Enjoy.


The monument to the Third International

Nikolai Punin
Iskusstvo kommuny
September 1920

In 1919 the Department of Fine Arts within the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment commissioned the artist V. E. Tatlin to develop a design for a monument to the Third International. The artist Tatlin immediately set to work and produced a design. The artists I.A. Meerzon, M.P. Vinogradov, and T.M. Shapiro formed a “Creative Collective,” then developed the design in detail and constructed a model.

The main idea of the monument is based on an organic synthesis of the principles of architecture, sculpture and painting and was intended to produce a new type of monumental structure, uniting in itself a purely creative form with a utilitarian form. In accordance with this idea, the design of the monument consists of three large glass structures, erected by means of a complex system of vertical struts and spirals. These structures are arranged one above the other and are contained within different, harmoniously related forms. A special type of mechanism would enable them to move at different speeds. The lower structure (A), in the form of a cube, moves on its axis at the speed of one revolution a year and is intended for legislative purposes. Here may be held conferences of the International, meetings of international congresses and other broadly legislative meetings… The next structure (B), in the form of a pyramid, rotates on its axis at the speed of one full revolution a month and is intended for executive functions (the Executive Committee of the International, the secretariat and other administrative and executive  bodies). Finally, the upper cylinder (C), rotating at a speed of one revolution a day, is intended to be a resource center for the following facilities: an information office; a newspaper; the publication of proclamations, brochures and manifestos — in a word, all the various means of broadly informing the international proletariat, and in particular a telegraph, projectors for a large screen located on the axes of a spherical segment (a1-b3), and a radio station, the masts of which rise above the monument. There is no need to point out the enormous possibilities for equipping and organizing these structures. The details of the design have not yet been specified, they can be discussed and worked out (luring subsequent elaboration of the monument’s interior.


It is necessary to explain that according to the artist Tatlin”s conception, the glass structures should have vacuum walls (a thermos) which will make it easy to maintain a constant temperature within the edifice. The separate parts of the monument will be connected to one another and to the ground by means exclusively of complexly structured electrical elevators, adjusted to the differing rotation speeds of the structures. Such are the technical bases of the project. Continue reading