El Lissitzky exhibition in Moscow, November 2017-February 2018

El Lissitzky, renaissance man of the Soviet avant-garde, is the subject of a major career survey in Russia that opened last week. It is the first such show in the country for thirty years.

Ambitiously organized across two venues, the State Tretyakov Museum and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, the shows are being treated as a single exhibition. They draw on an archive of the artist’s work preserved against all odds by Sophie Küppers, his German wife, an art historian and collector. Roughly 400 works are on display.

Lissitzky spent a significant portion of the 1910s and 1920s in Germany, promoting revolutionary art. When he returned to the Soviet Union in 1925, he left dozens of his paintings, photographs, architectural and graphic designs behind.

Lissitzky married Küppers in 1927 — for which she later paid a chilling price. Three years after her husband’s death in 1941, she was exiled to Siberia as an enemy alien, and works in her collection were seized by Soviet authorities. In July 2017, her heirs won a major battle in a German court over a work she had owned by Paul Klee, which was seized by the Nazis in 1937 and sold off as “degenerate” art.

Tatyana Goryacheva, the Tretyakov’s curator, says Küppers sold “part of her archive and nearly 300 graphic works” to the museum in 1959. “The collection includes drawings and sketches of Prouns” as well as “lithographs, sketches of architectural and exhibition projects, posters and book designs,” she says.

Goryacheva says that while the exhibition underscores Lissitzky’s talent, it also illuminates “the interrelations between the artist and the authorities, avant-garde art, and totalitarian ideology — an issue that inevitably arises in connection with art of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde.”

  • El Lissitzky, State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow, until 4 February 2018
  • El Lissitzky, Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, Moscow, until 18 February 2018

Continue reading

Lenin’s tomb

Мавзолей.Строительство-2 Мавзолей.Строительство-3 Мавзолей.Строительство-4

The cult of Lenin

Boris Groys
The Total Artwork
of Stalinism

The Lenin cult was very significant both in the political legitimization of Stalin and in the evolution of socialist realism, since even before Stalin came to power Lenin had been proclaimed the model of the “new man,” “the most human of all human beings.” Maiakovskii’s slogan “Lenin is more alive than the living” adorning the streets of Soviet cities does not contradict the cult of Lenin’s mummy in the mausoleum (perhaps one of the most mysterious in the history of world religion). Although I shall not attempt an exhaustive description of the cult here, it does deserve a few words. It has undeniably exerted a hidden formative influence on all subsequent Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet culture, if for no other reason than the central position it occupies in the invisible Soviet sacred hierarchy. Twice a year, “the entire Soviet land” submits its “report” in parades and demonstrations that pass by the mausoleum, and the leaders who accept this report stand on the roof of the structure, symbolically basing their power on the mummy of Lenin concealed within.

The construction of the mausoleum on Red Square and the founding of the Lenin cult were vigorously opposed by traditional Marxists and the representatives of left art [LEF]. The former spoke of “Asiatic barbarism” and “savage customs unworthy of Marxists. ” LEF also reacted to the first temporary variant of the mausoleum, which was later slightly simplified, describing it as “a verbatim translation from the ancient Persian” that resembled the grave of King Cyrus near Mugraba. Such criticism today, of course, is no longer possible — not only because the mausoleum was long ago pronounced “sacred to all Soviet citizens, ” but also because everyone got used to it long ago.

Мавзолей.Строительство-5Мавзолей.Строительство-6 Мавзолей.Строительство-7 Мавзолей.Строительство-8 Мавзолей.Строительство-10 Мавзолей.Строительство-11

The LEF critics, who perceived in Lenin’s mausoleum only an analogy with ancient Asian tombs, were as usual blind to the originality of the new Stalinist culture taking shape before their very eyes. The mummies of the pharaohs and other ancient rulers were walled up in pyramids and concealed from mortals — opening such graves was considered sacrilege. Lenin, in contrast, is on public display as a work of art, and his mausoleum, as is evident from the long lines that have formed before it every day for decades, is without a doubt the most frequented museum in the Soviet Union. If the “militant atheists” of the time exhumed the relics of saints and exhibited them in museum-like displays as antireligious propaganda, Lenin was from the outset simultaneously buried and displayed. The Lenin mausoleum is a synthesis between a pyramid and a museum that exhibits Lenin’s body, the mortal husk he shed to become the personification of the building of socialism, “inspiring the Soviet people to heroic deeds.” Continue reading

Samara: Constructivism into Stalinism

Architecture at the margins of
the Soviet Union (1927-1936)

via golem

golem adds a remark made by one E. Radniskii, who apparently wrote:

Гигантомания — это частая болезнь диктаторов. Но они не зря путают великое и большое. Кое-какой резон в этой гигантомании есть: огромные размеры устрашают толпу. Рождают бессознательное представление о мощи государства. Что же касается искусства тоталитаризма, всех этих бездушных подражаний античности, любви к тупому реализму, то вкус диктаторов, вышедших из народа, объединял их со вкусом простых людей. Но по прошествии времени происходит порой таинственное преображение – вчерашний маразм начинает казаться любопытной эстетикой.

A bit overstated, in my opinion. Rough translation of the first bits: “Gigantomania — this is a common ailment of dictators. However, don’t confuse ‘big’ with ‘great.’ The kind of reasoning that lies behind this gigantomania is: enormous size will frighten the crowd.”

I think this collapses constructivism and post-constructivism (early Stalinism), without making much distinction between their formal features. Of course, it’s not total discontinuity between avant-garde and kitsch. Boris Groys has a point here. Nevertheless, it’s a little odd that the author of this post titles it “Samaran constructivism,” and then describes the style as dictatorial or Stalinist.

Either way, some fantastic photos. You can see some of the transitional hybrid style Selim Khan-Magomedov referred to as post-constructivist here.

27. управление милиции ныне сгоревшее7. Дом промышленности6. Дом Красной Армии Continue reading

Amidst the ruins of the Soviet avant-garde

Isa Willinger on her film
Away from All Suns!

Originally published at the architecture website uncube. Several weeks ago I posted another interview with the director.

Architecture was once considered fundamental to the rethinking of society and the shape it took. This is the premise of Away from All Suns! a new feature-length documentary by filmmaker Isabella Willinger, a documentary filmmaker based in Munich and Berlin, whose work focuses on gender, social upheavals and human rights. Her film examines the relics of Constructivist architecture scattered throughout Moscow and attempts to tease out what’s left of their revolutionary past. Upon their construction, these buildings embodied the emancipatory change promised and, at least for a time, instituted by the Bolshevik Revolution. Over three-quarters of a century later, suspended in a fragile purgatory between decay and demolition, structures like the Narkomfin Building (1928-30) and the Communal Student House of the Textile Institute (1929) still stun in their radical and emphatic newness.

These buildings seem to rise “from a time more modern than my own,” Willinger says at the beginning of the film. And yet they are just one part of the story. The film’s narrative juggles a cast of unconnected characters, each of whom occupies — in one sense or another — three revolutionary residences. As becomes apparent over the course of the film, their paths are intrinsically bound up with the misfortunes of their storied addresses; like the buildings themselves, they are imperiled by increasingly conservative, reactionary forces that, buoyed by a galvanized corporate sector, threaten their existence, if not that of democratic Russian society. Even so, they persist against great odds, with mixed feelings of nostalgia, hope, and helplessness.

Willinger recently premiered Away from All Suns! at the Istanbul Architecture Film Festival, where it was awarded the top prize. Ahead of its European DVD release, she talks to Sammy Medina for uncube about her film, the Soviet avant-garde, and the bleak future of Russian architecture.

Archival newsreel footage of a Soviet parade with a wooden model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) carried through the streets

Newsreel footage of a parade with a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s
Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) in the streets


Sammy Medina:
When did you first visit the modernist ruins in Moscow?

Isa Willinger: I first visited them in the summer of 2010. I was actually researching a completely different film topic in Moscow then and was not planning on making a film about them at all. On my walks through the city, I felt an affinity to the Constructivist buildings that I would come by randomly and began to photograph them. Moscow as an urban space and also as a cultural space has something very inaccessible about itself, something even unwelcoming and closed. In retrospect, I think the buildings were the only thing in Moscow’s cityscape I could visually and culturally connect with.

Sammy Medina: What was it about them that impressed you?

Isa Willinger: To me the buildings seemed like gigantic signs in the city. I have no background in architecture, so initially I wasn’t aware of the spatial and urban concepts behind them. In the course of making the film, this obviously changed, but I have never lost the sense of my initial impression. I’ve always continued to see and treat them as signs, rather than architecture. Continue reading

Kunkel reviews Groys for the London Review of Books

The latest issue of the London Review of Books features an article by Benjamin Kunkel on Boris Groys’ Introduction to Antiphilosophy. It’s a fairly good review, with an unexpected emphasis on Adorno — against whom Kunkel contrasts Groys’ aesthetic theory. There are bits and pieces I disagree with, quibbles about some of Kunkel’s passing characterizations of Adorno’s thought, and think he’s a bit unfair to Groys at times. But Kunkel recognizes that Groys’ main value consists in his ability to unsettle and disturb his readers, something I’ve always appreciated in his writings.

Still, considered purely as a review of his most recent collection of essays, Introduction to Antiphilosophy, Kunkel’s piece falls well short. In fact, his entire focus is on one essay out of the entire volume, in which Groys revisits the Gesamtkunstwerk theme in tracing out a genealogy of participatory aesthetics. Otherwise, the rest of the review goes over Groys’ long career as a theorist-provocateur, which is admittedly an interesting narrative, but spends most of its time on his first book on Stalinist aesthetics and his 2010 nostalgia piece on The Communist Postscript. Left completely out of the picture are some of the more interesting essays in the book, though on the whole it’s a rather uneven text. Continue reading

Stalinism in art and architecture, or, the first postmodern style

Book Review:

Boris Groys’ The Total Art of Stalinism

Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in
the Age of Stalin: Culture Two


Originally published by Situations: Project for the Radical Imagination (Vol. V, No. 1). You can view a free PDF of the document here.

Last year, the English translations of two major works of art and architectural criticism from the late Soviet period were rereleased with apparently unplanned synchronicity. A fresh printing of Vladimir Paperny’s Architecture in the Age of Stalin: Culture Two (2002, [Культура Два, 1985]) was made available in June 2011 by Cambridge University Press. Verso Books, having bought the rights to the Princeton University Press translation of Boris Groys Total Art of Stalinism (1993 [Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, 1988]), republished the work in a new edition. This hit the shelves shortly thereafter, only two months after Paperny’s book was reissued.

Each book represents an attempt, just prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse, to come to grips with the legacy of its artistic and architectural avant-garde of the 1920s, as well as the problematic character of the transition to Socialist Realism and neoclassicism in the mid-1930s, lasting up until Stalin’s death in 1953. Not only do Paperny’s and Groys’ writings follow a similar trajectory, however: they intersect biographically as well. The two authors knew each other prior to their emigration from the USSR and still maintain a close personal friendship. But their arguments should not for that reason be thought identical. Paperny began his research much earlier, in the mid-1970s, and Groys’ own argument is clearly framed in part as a polemical response to his colleague’s claims.

Left: Vladimir Paperny, painted by Diana Vouba;
Right: Boris Groys painted by Luca Debaldo

Both can be seen to constitute a reaction, moreover, to the dull intellectual climate of official academic discourse on the subject during the Brezhnev era. In his introduction to the English version of Paperny’s book, Groys recalls the “background of almost total theoretical paralysis” against which it first appeared in 1979. “[I]t felt like breathing fresh air in the stale intellectual atmosphere [of Moscow] at the time,” he wrote.1 Indeed, Eastern Marxism’s most talented aesthetic theorists after the expulsion of Trotskii were by and large conservatives — the repentant Georg Lukács or his equally repentant protégé Mikhail Lifshits, each an apologist for the Zhdanovshchina and hostile to modernism. After destalinization commenced in 1956, following Khrushchev’s “secret speech,” the tables were turned. Socialist realism and neoclassicism were out; the heroic avant-garde movements of the 1920s were back in (albeit in the diluted, vulgarized form typical of Khrushchev). With the rise of Brezhnev in the mid-1960s, the thaw came to a close. But full-fledged Stalinism was not reinstated, at least not in the realms of art or architecture. Now neither alternative — modernism nor Stalinism — appeared in a particularly favorable light. That they had existed was accepted on a purely factual basis, as part of the historical record. Expressing an opinion on either, however, much less an interpretation, was generally considered unwise. Continue reading

special issue on communism

Platypus Review № 54: Special issue on “communism”

Special Issue on “Communism”

The Platypus Review, № 54 [PDF]

1305823769_www.nevsepic.com.ua_doloy-kuhonnoe-rabstvo-1931-shegalVerso’s Pocket Communism series seeks to reorient leftist discourse by taking the idea of “communism” as a shared point of departure.  In this series of articles and interviews, the Platypus Affiliated Society seeks to host a critical dialogue on this subject in order to clarify the various positions and oppositions that are at work, situate them within the broader history of the Left, and evaluate their salience for the present.

‘Communism’ is still the name to be used to designate radical emancipatory projects. It is a name that can not only express the Idea which guides radical activity, but can also help expose the catastrophes of the twentieth century, including those of the Left.

— Slavoj Žižek and Costas Douzinas, The Idea of Communism (2010), pgs. viii-ix.

I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner.  On the contrary, we must help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves.  Thus communism in particular is a dogmatic abstraction.

— Karl Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge” (September 1843)

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself.  We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.

— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845)


Alain Badiou's The Communist Hypothesis (2010) The Marxist hypothesis: A response to Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis
by Chris Cutrone
And yet a very different set of historical periodizations, and hence a very different history, focused on other developments, might be opposed to Badiou’s. Counter to Badiou’s “communist hypothesis,” which reaches back to the origins of the state in the birth of civilization millennia ago, a “Marxist hypothesis” would seek to grasp the history of the society of capital.


Traversing the heresies: An interview with Bruno Bosteels
by Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe
On October 14th, 2012, Alec Niedenthal and Ross Wolfe both interviewed Bruno Bosteels, a Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University and author of such books as Badiou and Politics (2011), Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), and The Actuality of Communism (2011). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jodi Dean's Communist Horizon (2012)

What is to be done with the actually-existing Marxist Left? An interview with Jodi Dean
by Ross Wolfe
On October 13th, 2012, Ross Wolfe of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith College, and author of Žižek’s Politics (2006) and The Communist Horizon (New York: Verso, 2012). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Boris Groys' Communist Postscript (2009)

A remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys
by Ross Wolfe
On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, the Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), and The Communist Postscript (2009). Click to view an edited transcript of their conversation.

Further reading:

Editorial statement of purpose

Taking stock of the universe of positions and goals that constitutes leftist politics today, we are left with the disquieting suspicion that a deep commonality underlies the apparent variety: What exists today is built upon the desiccated remains of what once was possible.

In order to make sense of the present, we find it necessary to disentangle the vast accumulation of positions on the Left and to evaluate their saliency for the possible reconstitution of emancipatory politics in the present. Doing this implies a reconsideration of what is meant by the Left.

Our task begins from what we see as the general disenchantment with the present state of progressive politics. We feel that this disenchantment cannot be cast off by sheer will, by simply “carrying on the fight,” but must be addressed and itself made an object of critique. Thus we begin with what immediately confronts us.

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring model Sputnik, Rome 1958

Vote communist! [Vota comunista!] truck featuring a model of Sputnik, Rome 1958

The Platypus Review is motivated by its sense that the Left is disoriented. We seek to be a forum among a variety of tendencies and approaches on the Left — not out of a concern with inclusion for its own sake, but rather to provoke disagreement and to open shared goals as sites of contestation. In this way, the recriminations and accusations arising from political disputes of the past may be harnessed to the project of clarifying the object of leftist critique.

The Platypus Review hopes to create and sustain a space for interrogating and clarifying positions and orientations currently represented on the Left, a space in which questions may be raised and discussions pursued that would not otherwise take place. As long as submissions exhibit a genuine commitment to this project, all kinds of content will be considered for publication.

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Remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys

 Ross Wolfe
Platypus Review
March 2013

On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986), Art Power (2008), The Communist Postscript (2009), and Going Public (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Ross Wolfe:
 In the introduction to your 2006 book, The Communist Postscript, you provocatively assert: “The communist revolution is the transcription of society from the medium of money to the medium of language. It is a linguistic turn at the level of social praxis.”[1] What do you make of the “communist turn” in contemporary left discourse, that is, the return to the idea of communism in Badiou, Žižek, Bosteels, Dean, et al.?

Boris Groys: It doesn’t seem to me that any return has actually taken place. If you are speaking now of the West, not of the East, then you have always had communist parties: the French Communist Party, the Italian Communist Party, every European nation had a communist party during and after the Cold War. So I would rather speak about a migration of discourse away from the framework of mass parties. These became inefficient, partially dissolved, and lost their influence and power within European societies. And now we have groups of intellectuals who are asserting their hegemony over the discourse of the “communist hypothesis.”

French leftist intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, 1972. Gilles Deleuze can be seen in the background

French leftistsJean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, 1972.
Gilles Deleuze can be seen in the background

But we also shouldn’t underestimate the influence or the intellectual and institutional power of the mass party. The communist party apparatus and communist press were very influential in France and Italy throughout the Cold War. And then, if we look at the intellectual trajectories of different figures, from Sartre to Foucault and Derrida and so on, all of them in one way or another defined his position in the first place vis-à-vis the Communist Party, much more so than in relation to capitalism. So if you look at the career of Badiou, for example, he began with a kind of Sartrean connection, but then developed a Maoist infatuation very early on, in the 1960s. His project since then was one of constant revolt against the domination of the French Communist Party. The Maoist movement, like many others from that time, was actually directed against the leading role of the Communist Party. Everything that we read now from Badiou and others comes out of this very early experience of French Maoism in the 1960s. They experienced the “betrayal” of the 1960s movements by the Communist Party, even though these movements had been partially directed against the communist parties to begin with. We can argue what happened in different ways, but my impression is that right now we have the continuation of an immanent contestation of the communist party that started much, much earlier — in the 1960s.

On the other hand, I was and still am very interested in the institutional and official traditions of communism. As with the early Protestants who saw the Catholic Church as the church of Satan, communists today claim, “All these decades and centuries of communist movements — that was not real communism. Communism will begin with us.” It is a claim that one can understand, but it seems to me historically, ideologically, politically, and philosophically problematic. All of the theorists of communism today say: “We start anew. We reject everything that came before. We don’t interpret or correct it — we just reject it as a fundamental failure.”

RW: Just as the theorists of communism at present would say that all past forms of communism were the work of Stalin?

BG: They reject Stalin in favor of the idea of communism. But how is one to access this “idea” of communism? To stress the immediate idea of communism is idealistic and neglects the necessity of dealing with the materialist side of communism. Communism is not God. One cannot be a Saint Paul of communism. Sartrean existentialism, Maoist event, or Deleuzean direct contact with energies, desires, affects — these all claim to provide an unmediated understanding of what communism is beyond any tradition, institution, or party. They’re direct, individual, ultimately involving only one person. That is a very Romantic, almost mystical-religious approach. Because, of course, traditionally Marxism has something to do with mediation and a disbelief in the possibility of directly grasping something like “the idea of communism,” or of experiencing communism as an event.

Portrait of Iosif Stalin (late 1920s)

Portrait of Iosif Stalin (late 1920s)

RW: You also argue that the emphasis on the “idea” of communism leads to “a modern form of Platonism in practice.”[2] What is specifically “modern” about communism?

BG: For me, Platonism does not refer to the possibility of immediately grasping the Idea, but rather to a demonstration of the impossibility of any such insight. What the Socratic dialogues demonstrate is the impossibility of the notion of a human being grasping the Idea because every course of argumentation collapses on itself. And this place of collapse is actually a site of power. If you look at the Platonic state, the philosopher-king is someone who actually manages and administers this space of collapse, the defeat of the desire for truth. Historically this site was the Soviet Union. What makes this a modern experience is the extreme scale on which it takes place.

We are living in a society that is split in such an obvious way that we no longer believe in the possibility of democracy, at least from a liberal perspective, because there seems to be no hope for consensus, which is the traditional basis of democracy. If you look at contemporary American society, or really any contemporary society, it is so fundamentally fragmented it seems incapable of reaching consensus. Such societies can only be administered, but cannot be brought to any kind of democratic politics. In the West, this kind of administration — in these societies beyond consensus — occurs through the market. But in the East, the market was ultimately abolished by the Bolsheviks. And so instead of being governed by economics, there was an emergence of certain kinds of administrative power practicing a language beyond consensus. The phenomenon of a language where no agreement can be reached is precisely what one can find in a very refined form in the Platonic dialogues. And the philosopher here is someone who manages language beyond consensus. What makes the Platonic problem modern is that it has became urgent and political, a problem of society as a whole, rather than of a small group of Greek intellectuals in the agora.

In Plato, the state is administered by the philosophers through an occasional application of violence, not determined by any consensus, because Plato understands that such consensus is impossible. So both capitalism and communism, especially in their Eastern European form, constituted answers to the insight that the French Revolution’s bourgeois dream of reaching a sort of basic consensus had collapsed. The dream had collapsed already by the time of Marx, and then even further with Nietzsche. As long as you speak about commonalities or “the common,” you remain at the level of reflection, which is fundamentally pre-Marxist. If you want to speak of politics after Marx, after Nietzsche, after Freud, you have to consider societies that have nothing in the way of common ground. Because if you look at the intellectual landscape before the French Revolution, and even slightly afterward, you find this kind of hope for a consensual politics or ideology. There’s a belief in a natural truth, a divine truth, a common truth, a truth that’s reached at the end of history. But a new, modern period of political thinking commences from a dissatisfaction with such truths. When the class struggle asserts itself the possibility of reaching consensus or a common truth disappears. How does society manage that? There are two models: the state and the market. They manage the problem in two different ways.

Crowds gather for Maiakovskii's funeral

Crowds gather for Maiakovskii’s funeral, 1930

RW: With management by the state being socialism and management by the market being capitalism?

BG: A socialist state exists only where the state has been liberated from the market — in which the market has been either subordinated or eliminated entirely. In a capitalist state, say, in the West, the state is subordinated to the market. So what was the Stalinist state? It was a machine for the frustration of everybody, in which the possibility of achieving the truth was excluded. And what is the Western market? The same. It’s a machine for the frustration of everybody, since everyone knows that whatever a politician says, nothing will come out of it.

RW: As an author of one of the books on communism for Verso: How central was Marx’s thought to the formulation of communism? Obviously there were pre-Marxist communists such as Saint-Simon or Fourier or Proudhon. And later there were non-Marxist (anarchist, post-Marxist) developments or articulations of the idea of communism. But with respect to your own work the question is different, I think, in that more than the irreducibility of Marx, it asserts the irreducibility of Stalin.

BG: I would argue for irreducibility of both, and that of Marx, I have summarized already. All these thinkers you mention — Saint-Simon, Fourier, and so on — proposed improvements that were based on the possibility of consensus, on the hope of reaching a common understanding, the insight that life as it is presently is bad, but can be changed from bad to good. Marx believes that such a common understanding is impossible, because of the difference of class interests. He was, basically, anti-utopian.

RW: But didn’t Marx believe in the possibility of a classless society?

BG: Yes, but only after all the classes are suppressed as classes, and this is potentially an infinite process. The traditional utopian communist ideal was based on a perception that one could take all classes, the whole population as it is, and proceed toward a new social truth. Marx argued that this wasn’t possible. For him, one has to start a war inside society, which involved class struggle. A classless society cannot include a huge part of society as it is and that must be therefore destroyed. Stalin’s insight was that a classless society is not something that emerges immediately, spontaneously, or even necessarily, after the abolition of the existing class system. The society that comes after the revolution is also a society that should be managed, which creates its own classes. Now the question is how one deals with that.

Marx starts his discourse with the impossibility of common interest. Everything else comes out of this. Insofar as you believe that there’s something — a “desire,” an “energy,” “absolute spirit,” whatever — that unites society as it is, you’re thinking along pre-Marxist lines. To adopt a post-Marxist lens, you have to see society as something irreparably and irreversibly divided. For this kind of outlook, the question becomes how one manages this division. How does one operate under the assumption (or actually the reality) of this irreparable divide? That is the post-Marxist problem.

Stalin and Roosevelt fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

Soviet premier Stalin and American president Roosevelt
fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

RW: To rephrase things slightly: Would you say that Marx’s thought is the necessary presupposition or the condition of possibility for communism? And then, conversely, would you say that Stalin is the necessary outcome of communism?

BG: No, I wouldn’t say all of that, for there isn’t any single answer to this question. Stalin is an answer. Is it a plausible answer? Yes. Is it a likeable answer? Well, no, it’s not. But it’s not an answer that can be ignored. The market doesn’t provide an adequate answer. Stalin doesn’t provide an adequate answer either, at least, not the answer I would prefer. But at the same time, I don’t believe that any answer can be sufficient if it ignores the question, and all its radical implications.

RW: Toward the beginning of your book, Going Public, you refer to “the period of modernity” as “the period in which we still live.”[3] You roughly date it, at least theoretically and philosophically, as coinciding with Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790). The obvious political correlate to this would be 1789 and the French Revolution. Are we still — or were we ever — postmodern? If so, how does this relate to modernity, “the period in which we still live”? Might postmodernity perhaps be reaching an end?

BG: Well, when I speak about postmodernity in my writings, it’s because other people use this word and believe themselves to have a certain understanding about what it means. Personally, I don’t think any such transition from modernity to postmodernity ever happened. Postmodernity has never really had any meaning as a concept.

Postmodernism was associated with disbelief in progress. But nobody in the nineteenth century who was intelligent believed in progress. Baudelaire didn’t believe in progress and neither did Flaubert, nor Nietzsche, or Wölfflin. “Postmodernity” was a way by which people came to understand what people already understood in the nineteenth century.

But perhaps it was only known at first by avant-garde intellectuals, elite circles of artists in Western Europe during the nineteenth century. When people speak of postmodernity, they’re really talking about something that was known before but now was becoming clear to everybody. From the perspective of artistic, intellectual, and cultural modernity, however, nothing has changed. And we still don’t know how to deal with it. Modern problems, as they were formulated in relation to art, culture, and writing, during the nineteenth century, remain very relevant and unsolved. The real change came toward the middle of the nineteenth century. It occurred with the collapse of Hegelianism, the collapse of European idealism amidst the industrial revolution, and with it, the beginning of intellectual and cultural modernity.

But almost as early as the disjunction between Romanesque and Gothic churches, if you will, you’ll always see these “waves” in the succession of European styles. So beginning with the Renaissance, you have clear-cut forms, geometrical models, and a certain kind of clarity or intellectual transparency. But then it’s followed by the Baroque period: by complexity, obscurity, and contradiction. Then you have something similar between Classicism and Romanticism. And then at the start of the twentieth century, there is the avant-garde, which lasted until 1926 or 1927. After that, though, there is this huge wave of embryonic postmodernity — historicism, Socialist Realism, Nazi art, the “return to order,” and the Novecento in Italy. But all of that was suppressed after World War II. Following the war, there’s a new wave of modernism — a neo-avant-garde that goes from the 1950s and 1960s, lasting through the early 1970s. Starting in 1971 or 1972, you get a kind of neo-baroque. There’s Of Grammatology by Derrida, a baroque gesture. So there are these waves in the cultural history of Europe, shifting from clarity, intellectual responsibility, mathematico-scientific influences, and transparency to opacity, obscurity, absence, infinity. What is the Deleuzean or Derridean moment? It’s the moment where they took the structuralist models, defined as a system of finite rules and moves, and made it infinite. It is precisely what Romanticism did with the Enlightenment, what the Baroque did with the Renaissance, and so on. Even in terms of Marxism, you get these waves. There is the classical period of clarity. Then there is a period of obscurity — Benjamin, Adorno, and the like.

RW: A related question: How would you say the Soviet project relates to the modern period? Do you think there’s any sort of link between what’s understood in the West — perhaps wrongly — as “postmodernity” and the collapse of historical Marxism in the 1970s and, after 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Is there any correlation between the post-Soviet moment and the general onset of postmodernity?

BG: Just as I don’t believe in “postmodernity,” I don’t believe in the “post-Soviet” situation either; rather, we are experiencing an intermediate moment between two periods of wars and revolutions. Today we live under the illusion of peace and free markets, just like people did during the nineteenth century, before the First World War. Our current mode of existence is very similar to the second half of the nineteenth century: there is mass culture, entertainment instead of high culture, terrorism, an interest in sexuality, the cult of celebrity, open markets, etc.

Before the rise of Imperial Germany, everybody in the West believed it was interested in capitalism, although in Germany everyone understood it was about war. That is what will happen again in the foreseeable future. In fact, it is already beginning to happen, in that we are actually witnessing a return to a state and military infrastructure. Just as after the French Revolution, there is the reversion to antiquity, and then a new medievalism with Romanticism, the infrastructure of our epoch will be contested, and this will start a new period of war and revolutions. At that point, we’ll remember the Soviet Union, and many other phenomena. |P


1. Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript (London: Verso, 2009), xv.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Boris Groys, Going Public (New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), 10.

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