A tribute to Vladimir Mayakovsky

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I present to you a Mayakovsky mega-post, for your delectation. Not only was V-Mak kind of a hunk; he was also the consummate poet. All too often he is remembered as a prettyboy, not a serious lyricist. Contemporary critics tended to rank him quite highly, however. Shklovsky called him “a poet’s poet.” Roman Jakobson’s admiration, as will be seen, ran even deeper. Trotsky identified him as “a colossal talent,” even if he criticized some of his poems.

Bengt Jangfeldt wrote a detailed biography of Mayakovsky back in 2007, which was translated last year and published by University of Chicago press. You can download it below, along with a volume he edited of recollections by Jakobson of his youthful involvement with the avant-garde movement in Russia titled My Futurist Years. Jakobson is particularly excellent, but both are great reads.

Moreover, I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a number of high-quality images of the great poet, as is my wont. These were scattered across the web, made all the more disparate by the varied ways his name is transliterated into Latin in different European languages. Following the images, Jakobson’s excellent 1931 essay “On a Generation that Squandered Its Poets” appears. Here are the books for download.

  1. Bengt Jangfeldt, Mayakovsky: A Biography (2007)
  2. Roman Jakobson, My Futurist Years
  3. Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature

On a generation that squandered its poets

Roman Jakobson
Mayakovsky’s Death
Berlin, Germany: 1931

Killed; —
Little matter
Whether I or he
Killed them.

Mayakovsky’s poetry — his imagery, his lyrical composition — I have written about these things and published some of my remarks. The idea of writing a monograph has never left me. Mayakovsky’s poetry is qualitatively different from everything in Russian verse before him, however intent one may be on establishing genetic links. This is what makes the subject particularly intriguing. The structure of his poetry is profoundly original and revolutionary. But how it is possible to write about Mayakovsky’s poetry now, when the paramount subject is not the rhythm but the death of the poet, when (if I may resort to Mayakovsky’s own poetic phrase) “sudden grief” is not yet ready to give in to “a clearly realized pain”?

During one of our meetings, Mayakovsky, as was his custom, read me his latest poems. Considering his creative potential I could not help comparing them with what he might have produced. “Very good,” I said, “but not as good as Mayakovsky.” Yet now the creative powers are canceled out, the inimitable stanzas can no longer be compared to anything else, the words “Mayakovsky’s last poems” have suddenly taken on a tragic meaning. Sheer grief at his absence has overshadowed the absent one. Now it is more painful, but still easier, to write not about the one we have lost but rather about our own loss and those of us who have suffered it.

It is our generation that has suffered the loss. Roughly, those of us who are now between thirty and forty-five years old. Those who, already fully matured, entered into the years of the Revolution not as unmolded clay but still not hardened, still capable of adapting to experience and change, still capable of taking a dynamic rather than a static view of our lives.

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Hannes Meyer, The new world [Die neue Welt] (1926)

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The flight of the “Norge” to the North pole, the Zeiss planetarium at Jena and Flettner’s rotor ship represent the latest stages to be reported in the mechanization of our planet. Being the outcome of extreme precision of thought, they all provide striking evidence of the way in which science continues to permeate our environment. Thus in the diagram to the present age we find everywhere amidst sinuous lines of its social and economic fields of force straight lines which are mechanical and scientific in origin. They are cogent evidence of the victory of man the thinker over amorphous nature. This new knowledge undermines and transforms existing values. It gives our new world its shape.

Motor cars dash along our streets. On a traffic island in the Champs Elysées from 6 to 8 p.m. there rages round one metropolitan dynamism at its most strident. “Ford” and “Rolls Royce” have burst open the core of the town, obliterating distance and effacing the boundaries between town and country. Aircraft slip through the air: “Fokker” and “Farman” widen our range of movement and the distance between us and the earth; they disregard national frontiers and bring nation closer to nation. Illuminated signs twinkle, loud-speakers screech, posters advertise, display windows shine forth. The simultaneity of events enormously extends our concept of “space and time,” it enriches our life. We live faster and therefore longer. We have a keener sense of speed than ever before, and speed records are a direct gain for all. Gliding, parachute descents and music hall acrobatics refine our desire for balance. The precise division into hours of the time we spend working in office and factory and the split-minute timing of railway timetables make us live more consciously. With swimming pools, sanatoria, and public lavatories, hygiene appears on the local scene and its water closets, faience washbowls and baths usher in the new line of sanitary fittings in earthenware. Fordson tractors and v. Meyenburg cultivators have resulted in a shift of emphasis in land development and sped up the tilling of the earth and intensive cultivation of crops. Borrough’s calculating machine sets free our brain, the Dictaphone our hand, Ford’s motor our place-bound senses and Handley Page our earthbound spirits. Radio, marconigram, and phototelegraphy liberate us from our national seclusion and make us part of a world community. The gramophone, microphone, orchestrion, and pianola accustom our ears to the sound of impersonal-mechanized rhythms: “His Master’s Voice,” “Vox,” and “Brunswick” see to the musical needs of millions. Psychoanalysis has burst open the all too narrow dwelling of the soul and graphology has laid bare the character of the individual. “Mazdaism,” “Coué” and “Die Schönheit” are signs of the desire for reform breaking out everywhere. National costume is giving way to fashion and the external masculinization of woman shows that inwardly the two sexes have equal rights. Biology, psychoanalysis, relativity, and entomology are common intellectual property: France, Einstein, Freud, and Fabre are the saints of this latterday. Our homes are more mobile than ever. Large blocks of flats, sleeping cars, house yachts, and transatlantic liners undermine the local concept of the “homeland.” The fatherland goes into a decline. We learn Esperanto. We become cosmopolitan.

triptychon-1921

The steadily increasing perfection attained in printing, photographic, and cinematographic processes enables the real world to be reproduced with an ever greater degree of accuracy. The picture the landscape presents to the eye today is more diversified than ever before; hangars and power houses are the cathedrals of the spirit of the age. This picture has the power to influence through the specific shapes, colors, and lights of its modern elements: the wireless aerials, the dams, the lattice girders: through the parabola of the airship, the triangle of the traffic signs, the circle of the railway signal, the rectangle of the billboard; through the linear element of transmission lines: telephone wires, overhead tram wires, high-tension cables; through radio towers, concrete posts, flashing lights, and filling stations. Our children do not deign to look at a snorting steam locomotive but entrust themselves with cool confidence to the miracle of electric traction. G. Palucca’s dances, von Laban’s movement choirs, and D. Mesendieck’s functional gymnastics are driving out the aesthetic eroticism of the nude painting. The stadium has carried the day against the art museum, and physical reality has taken the place of beautiful illusion. Sport merges the individual into the mass. Sport is becoming the university of collective feeling. Suzanne Lenglen’s cancellation of a match disappoints hundreds of thousands, Breitensträter’s defeat sends a shiver through hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands follow Nurmi’s race over 10,000 meters on the running track. The standardization of our requirements is shown by: the bowler hat, bobbed hair, the tango, jazz, the Co-op product, the DIN standard size, and Liebig’s meat extract. The standardization of mental fare is illustrated by the crowds going to see Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, and Jackie Coogan. Grock and the three Fratellini weld the masses — irrespective of class and racial differences — into a community with a common fate. Trade union, co-operative, Lt., Inc., cartel, trust, and the League of Nations are the forms in which today’s social conglomerations find expression, and the radio and the rotary press are their media of communication. Co-operation rules the world. The community rules the individual.

Each age demands its own form. It is our mission to give our new world a new shape with the means of today. But our knowledge of the past is a burden that weighs upon us, and inherent in our advanced education are impediments tragically barring our new paths. The unqualified affirmation of the present age presupposes the ruthless denial of the past. The ancient institutions of the old — the classical grammar schools and the academies — are growing obsolete. The municipal theaters and the museums are deserted. The jittery helplessness of the applied arts is proverbial. In their place, unburdened by classical airs and graces, by an artistic confusion of ideas or the trimmings of applied art, the witnesses of a new era are arising: industrial fairs, grain silos, music halls, airports, office chairs, standard goods. All these things are the product of a formula: function multiplied by economics. They are not works of art. Art is composition, purpose is function. The composition of a dock seems to us a nonsensical idea, but the composition of a town plan, a block of flats…?? Building is a technical not an aesthetic process, artistic composition does not rhyme with the function of a house matched to its purpose. Ideally and in its elementary design our house is a living machine. Retention of heat, insolation, natural and artificial lighting, hygiene, weather protection, car maintenance, cooking, radio, maximum possible relief for the housewife, sexual and family life, etc. are the determining lines of force. The house is their component. (Snugness and prestige are not leitmotifs of the dwelling house: the first resides in the human heart and not in the Persian carpet, the second in the attitude of the house-owner and not on the wall of a room!) Today we have new building materials at our disposal for building a house: aluminium and duralumin in plates, rods, and bars, Euboölith, Ruberoid, Forfoleum, Eternit, rolled glass, Triplex sheets, reinforced concrete, glass bricks, faience, steel frames, concrete frame slabs and pillars, Trolith, Galalith, Cellon, Goudron, Ripoliin, indanthrene paints, etc. We organize these building elements into a constructive unity in accordance with the purpose of the building and economic principles. Architecture has ceased to be an agency continuing the growth of tradition or an embodiment of emotion. Individual form, building mass, natural color of material, and surface texture come into being automatically and this functional conception of building in all its aspects leads to pure construction [Konstruktion]. Pure construction is the characteristic feature of the new world of forms. Constructive form is not peculiar to any country; it is cosmopolitan and the expression of an international philosophy of building. Internationalism is the prerogative of our time.

Today every phase of our culture of expression is predominantly constructive. Human inertia being what it is, it is not surprising that such an approach is to be found most clearly at first where the Greeks and Louis XIV have never set foot: in advertising, in typographical mechanical composition, in the cinema, in photographic processes. The modern poster presents lettering and product or trademark conspicuously arranged. It is not a poster work of art but a piece of visual sensationalism. In the display window of today psychological capital is made of the tensions between modern materials with the aid of lighting. It is display window organization rather than window dressing. It appeals to the finely distinguishing sense of materials found in modern man and covers the gamut of its expressive power: fortissimo = tennis shoes to Havana cigarettes to scouring soap to nut chocolate! Mezzo-forte = glass (as a bottle) to wood (as a packing case) to pasteboard (as packing) to tin (as a can)! Pianissimo = silk pajamas to cambric shirts to Valenciennes lace to “L’Origan de Coty”! Continue reading

Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner

Gabo-Red-Kinetic-Painting-97-largeThe realistic manifesto (1920)

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Above the tempests of our weekdays,
Across the ashes and cindered homes of the past,
Before the gates of the vacant future,

We proclaim today to you artists, painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, poets…to you people to whom Art is no mere ground for conversation but the source of real exaltation, our word and deed.

The impasse into which Art has come to in the last twenty years must be broken.

The growth of human knowledge with its powerful penetration into the mysterious laws of the world which started at the dawn of this century,

The blossoming of a new culture and a new civilization with their unprecedented-in-history surge of the masses towards the possession of the riches
of Nature, a surge which binds the people into one union, and last, not least, the war and the revolution (those purifying torrents of the coming epoch), have made us face the fact of new forms of life, already born and active.

Naum Gabo in his studio, 1935 Antoine Pevsner in his Paris studio

What does Art carry into this unfolding epoch of human history?

Does it possess the means necessary for the construction of the new Great Style?

Or does it suppose that the new epoch may not have a new style?

Or does it suppose that the new life can accept a new creation which is constructed on the foundations of the old?

Naum Gabo

Naum Gabo

In spite of the demand of the renascent spirit of our time, Art is still nourished by impression, external appearance, and wanders helplessly back and forth from Naturalism to Symbolism, from Romanticism to Mysticism.

The attempts of the Cubists and the Futurists to lift the visual arts from the bogs of the past have led only to new delusions.

Cubism, having started with simplification of the representative technique ended with its analysis and stuck there.

The distracted world of the Cubists, broken in shreds by their logical anarchy, cannot satisfy us who have already accomplished the Revolution or who are already constructing and building up anew.

One could heed with interest the experiments of the Cubists, but one cannot follow them, being convinced that their experiments are being made on the surface of Art and do not touch on the bases of it seeing plainly that the end result amounts to the same old graphic, to the same old volume and to the same decorative surface as of old.

Antoine Pevsner

Antoine Pevsner

One could have hailed Futurism in its time for the refreshing sweep of its announced Revolution in Art, for its devastating criticism of the past, as in no other way could have assailed those artistic barricades of “good taste”…powder was needed for that and a lot of it…but one cannot construct a system of art on one revolutionary phrase alone.

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Victory over the sun (1913)

  • Two Futurist Strongmen
  • Nero and Caligula
  • A Time Traveller
  • A Malevolent
  • A Willbeite Machine Gun
  • A Fightpicker
  • Belligerent Soldiers
  • Sportsmen
  • Chorus
  • Pallbearers
  • A Telephone Talker
  • Eight Sun Carriers
  • The Motley Eye
  • The New
  • The Cowardly
  • A Reader
  • A Fat Man
  • An Old-timer
  • An Attentive Worker
  • A Young Man
  • An Aviator

Aleksei Kruchenykh (1886-1968) was a noted poet of the Russian Silver Age of literature. A radical even within the Russian Futurist movement, his best known works are the poem “Dyr bul shstyl” and the opera Victory over the Sun, with sets by Kazimir Malevich and music by Mikhail Matiushin. He was co-signatory, with Vladimir Mayakovsky, David Burliuk, and Velimir Khlebnikov, of “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.” He is considered the father of zaum, or transrational writing.

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FIRST ACTION

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Scene one

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White with black: walls white, floor black.

(TWO FUTURIST STRONGMEN rip the curtain.)

*
THE FIRST

All’s well that begins well!
And ends?

THE SECOND

There will be no end!
We astound the universe

THE FIRST

We arm the world [1] against ourselves
Organize the slaughter of scarecrows
How much blood
How many sabers
And bodies for cannons!
We inundate the mountains!

(They sing.)

Fat beauties
We’ve locked up in a house
Let the drunkards there
A variety walk start naked
We have no songs
Recompense of sighs
That beguile the slime
Of rotten naiads!

(FIRST STRONGMAN slowly exits.)

SECOND STRONGMAN

Sun you bore the passions
And scorched them with flaming beam
We’ll yank a dusty coverlet over you
Lock you up in a concrete house!

(NERO and CALIGULA appear in one person: he has only one left arm, raised and bent at right angles.)

N. AND C. (menacingly)

K’youllen sewern der*
Travelled light
Past Thursday
Fry rip what I left half-baked.

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Suprematism in architecture: Kazimir Malevich and the arkhitektons

Painting and the Problem of Architecture

Kazimir Malevich
Nova generatsiia
Vol. 3, №. 2 (1928)

If we examine the painting of the first quarter of the 20 century we immediately notice two trends: “objective” and “non-objective.”

These two trends differ both formally and in their Weltanschauung and attitude to art.

Corresponding to the different types of Weltempfang there arise various artistic classifications.

In the “objective” trend there exist various stages: the first stage is figurative; it perceives the model as such. In this stage we see objects in their artistic expression “as they are.”

In the second stage the subject or model is only a means of communicating the artist’s experience in works of art. What is more, all the objects, or nature, are artistically unified by the tone passing through them.

In the third stage we see how as the result of a particular artistic Weltempfang there occurs “artistic deformation of phenomena”; hence follows the disintegration of the object into separate pictorial elements. They create a new order which is called “the cubic form of revealing artistic expression.”

At this stage the object itself is not considered “as such,” and “as such” it is not the content of artistic skill; it exists only as the sum of unorganized painterly elements.

Next come two variants of the fourth stage of communicating Weltempfang: they are called “non-objective.”

In one of these types we see the total eclipse of the object and have a work of pure painterly Weltempfang.

The other “non-objective” type is not only the revelation of artistic Weltempfang but also of a whole series of the dynamic, static, magnetic, and other elements which exist in nature.

These two figurative stages deal exclusively with the form of objects, i.e. forms with the help of which objects are created on the canvas “as such.”

In the “non-objective” stages, on the other hand, form plays an important role, since without form it becomes impossible to convey any kind of Weltempfang.

In the “non-objective” stages one is not dealing with the representation of phenomena “as such,” but with the communication of definite sensations which exist in the phenomenal world.

In the “non-objective” stages there comes to the fore the question of creating the “forming element” with which to communicate sensations.

Thus the problem of form arises only in the new “non-objective” art. This is why the “non-objective” arts have had to rid themselves of the contents of various ideologies and also of the entire material side of everyday life, the system of which has been developing on a basis harmful to painting. Thus, for example, the table, house, motor, wedding, marriage did not develop as a result of people’s perceiving life artistically and expressing elements of this perception, as a revelation of artistic Weltempfang, in the form of a table.

The table, in common with all objects of a technical purpose, has practical utilitarian functions, and therefore the content of such objects is functionality; and all the elements of the world’s material constitute a firm functional order.

Thus the system of artistic perception of the functional order of the object may happen not to correspond to the artistic perception of the object, as one is dealing not with the functional content of a table but with its artistic content.

The critics have regarded this trend as “abstract,” at the basis of “abstract” art, parting from practical, concrete life.

To this “non-objective” type belongs Suprematism.

From this short analysis we see that in the first two stages of revealing sensations “form” is not a problem and does not have the same importance as in the third stage and, particularly, in the “non-objective” stages.

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A rooftop racetrack: The Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy (1923)

1925. Veduta panoramica dello stabilimento Lingotto dalla collina torinese1926. Stabilimento Fiat Lingotto. Rampa elicoidale

Fiat, the phantom of order (1964)

Reyner Banham
Arts in Society
April 18, 1985

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Last year’s grand international consultation (don’t ever call it a competition) on the future and re-use of the old Fiat car factory at Lingotto in the inner suburbs of Turin, was demonstrably a gilt-edged occasion, since the exhibition of the proposals, mounted in the abandoned building itself, the sumptuous accompanying literature and all the associated manifestations clearly cost a pretty lira or two, and the architects consulted included our own James Stirling and Sir Denys Lasdun, as well as other heavy-duty talents from both sides of the Atlantic.

Like the equally grand consultations to find an architect for the second Getty Museum in Los Angeles, it may prove to be one of the major architectural events — or possibly non-events — of the past year or so. But why all the bother? Locally, the issue seems to be simply that Fiat is Turin, and Turin is Fiat. The company embodies and symbolizes the industrial power of the city, and the factory commemorates all that labour history and union politics that have marked the long years of the love-hate relationship between Fiat and its workforce. Indeed, one reading of local history would insist that the plant was built in its very straightforward concrete-and-glass form in “deliberate and concrete response to the factory occupations, the demand for syndicalist control, the workers’ councils.”

More than that, however, the Lingotto plant is just the biggest thing in town. A single building four storeys high and half a kilometer long, with a press shop and other ancillaries at either end that bring it up to almost the full kilometer, it outbulks even the most grandiose of Turin’s baroque monuments. Its disappearance would not only re­move a big piece of local history, a memorial, a symbol; it would also leave a huge hole in the skyline along the via Nizza.

torinocitt228f torinocitt156f

It would also remove a building whose unique position in the history of modem architecture cannot be equalled anywhere in the world. Hence the international interest of which Fiat is so acutely aware. Yet it was the work of no great or famous architect, and the name of Its designer — Giacomo Matte Trucco — seems to attach to no other building that is known at all. Nevertheless, its status has been that of a masterpiece ever since it began to be known in 1920-21. It got into all the forward-striving books by people like Le Corbusier immediately, and into English language texts by the likes of Lewis Mumford within a decade. For this rapid acceptance there are two reasons, I think: one is that it fulfilled a modernist myth; the other is that it had a terrific gimmick. Continue reading

Aleksandr Rodchenko’s War of the Future (1930) and the lingering memory of chemical warfare

Aleksandr Rodchenko’s grim sci-fi vision of the War of the Future (1930) illustrates the extent to which the terror of chemical warfare and advanced implements of destruction haunted the Soviet and European imagination of conflict following World War I and the Russian Civil War. Death-rays and dirigibles. Howitzers and skyscrapers. Chiaroscuro gas-masks.

Rodchenko’s War of the Future (1930)

Compare Rodchenko’s photomontage with the early Soviet board game Chemical Warfare (1925) below.

Chemical Warfare (1925)

And compare with other examples of towering light-rays in conjunction with marvels of modern engineering.

Rays from the Eiffel Tower, 1889

Capitalist unrealism: Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama (1939)

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Even capitalism used to be more futuristic.

Unreal City…

— T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland” (1922)

Horizons

ENTER a new era. Are we ready for the changes that are coming? The houses we live in tomorrow will not much resemble the houses we live in today. Automobiles, railway trains, theaters, cities, industry itself, are undergoing rapid changes. Likewise, art in all its forms. The forms they presently take will undoubtedly have kinship with the forms we know in the present; but this relationship will be as distinct, and probably as remote, as that between the horseless buggy of yesterday and the present-day motor car. We live and work under pressure with a tremendous expenditure of energy. We feel that life in our time is more urgent, complex and discordant than life ever was before. That may be so. In the perspective of fifty years hence, the historian will detect in the decade of 1930-1940 a period of tremendous significance. He will see it as a period of criticism, unrest, and dissatisfaction to the point of disillusion when new aims were being sought and new beginnings were astir. Doubtless he will ponder that, in the midst of a worldwide melancholy owing to an economic depression, a new age dawned with invigorating conceptions and the horizon lifted.

Critics of the age are agreed upon one thought: that what industry has given us, as yet, is not good enough. Another plea of critics hostile to the age is that machines make automatons of men. They fail to see that the machine age is not really here. Although we built the machines, we have not become at ease with them and have not mastered them. Our condition is the result of a swift industrial evolution. If we see the situation clearly, we realize that we have been infatuated with our own mechanical ingenuity. Rapidly multiplying our products, creating and glorifying the gadget, we have been inferior craftsmen, the victims rather than the masters of our ingenuity. In our evolution we have accumulated noise, dirt, glitter, speed, mass production, traffic congestion, and the commonplace by our machine-made ideas. But that is only one side.

We have achieved the beginnings of an expression of our time. We now have some inkling of what today’s home, today’s theater, today’s factory, today’s city, should be. We perceive that the person who would use a machine must be imbued with the spirit of the machine and comprehend the nature of his materials. We realize that he is creating the telltale environment that records what man truly is.

It happens that the United States has seized upon more of the fruits of industrialism than any other nation. We have gone farther and more swiftly than any other. To what end? Not the least tendency is the searching and brooding uncertainty, the quest for basic truths which characterize the present day. Never before, in an economic crisis, has there been such an aroused consciousness on the part of the community at large and within industry itself. Complacency has vanished. A new horizon appears. A horizon that will inspire the next phase in the evolution of the age.

We are entering an era which, notably, shall be characterized by design in four specific phases: Design in social structure to insure the organization of people, work, wealth, leisure. Design in machines that shall improve working conditions by eliminating drudgery. Design in all objects of daily use that shall make them economical, durable, convenient, congenial to every one. Design in the arts, painting, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture, that shall inspire the new era.

The impetus towards design in industrial life today must be considered from three viewpoints: the consumer’s, the manufacturer’s, and the artist’s. In his appreciation of the importance of design the artist is somewhat ahead of the consumer, while the average manufacturer is farther behind the consumer than the consumer is behind the artist. The viewpoint of each is rapidly changing, developing, fusing. More than that, the economic situation is stimulating a unanimity of emphasis, a merger of viewpoints. Continue reading

The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde

Ivan Kudriashev’s “Luminescence” (1926)

Table of Contents

I. Introduction: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde

II. A Structural Overview of the Proceeding Work: The Sociohistoric Phenomenon of the International Avant-Garde and Soviet Urbanism as Its Decisive Moment

III. The Dialectic of Modernism and Traditionalism: The Development of the International Avant-Garde in Architecture

A. The Spatiotemporal Dialectic of Capitalism

B. Traditionalist Architecture

C. Modernist Architecture — Negative Bases

1. Traditionalist Architecture: “Style,” Ornamentation, and Eclecticism

2. The Academic Establishment

3. The “Anarchy of Production” under Capitalism

D. Modernist Architecture — Positive Bases

1. The Spatiotemporal Dimensions of Abstract Art (or, the Volumetrics of Modern Architecture) 

2. Industrialism (or, the Ergonomics of Modern Architecture) 

3. The Housing Shortage, the Urban Proletariat, and the Liberation of Woman (or, the Sociohistoric Mission of Modern Architecture)

IV. The Soviet Moment: The Turn toward Urbanism, the Crisis in the West, and the Crossroads of the Architectural Avant-Garde in Russia

A. The Artistic and Intellectual Origins of the Soviet Architectural Avant-Garde

B. The Further Development of the Soviet Architectural Avant-Garde into the 1930s

C. Totality, Total Architecture, and the Turn toward Urbanism

1. Totality

2. Total Architecture

3. The Turn toward Urbanism

D. The Crossroads of the Architectural Avant-Garde in Russia

V. Conclusion: The Sepulchral Cities of Modernity

VI. Notes

Ivan Leonidov, proposal for a section of Magnitogorsk (1930)

Introduction

Comrades!

The twin fires of war and revolution have devastated both our souls and our cities. The palaces of yesterday’s grandeur stand as burnt-out skeletons. The ruined cities await new builders[…]

To you who accept the legacy of Russia, to you who will (I believe!) tomorrow become masters of the whole world, I address the question: with what fantastic structures will you cover the fires of yesterday?

— Vladimir Maiakovskii, “An Open Letter to the Workers”[1]

Utopia transforms itself into actuality. The fairy tale becomes a reality. The contours of socialism will become overgrown with iron flesh, filled with electric blood, and begin to dwell full of life. The speed of socialist building outstrips the most audacious daring. In this lies the distinctive character and essence of the epoch.

— I. Chernia, “The Cities of Socialism”[2]

Between 1928 and 1937, the world witnessed the convergence of some of the premier representatives of European architectural modernism in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities throughout the Soviet Union. Never before had there been such a concentration of visionary architectural talent in one place, devoting its energy to a single cause. Both at home and abroad, the most brilliant avant-garde minds of a generation gathered in Russia to put forth their proposals for the construction of a radically new society. Never before had the stakes seemed so high. For it was out of the blueprints for this new society that a potentially international architecture and urbanism could finally be born, the likes of which might then alter the face of the entire globe. And from this new built environment, it was believed, would emerge the outlines of the New Man, as both the outcome of the new social order and the archetype of an emancipated humanity. With such apparently broad and sweeping implications, it is therefore little wonder that its prospective realization might have then attracted the leading lights of modernist architecture, both within the Soviet Union and without. By that same account, it is hardly surprising that the architectural aspect of engineering a postcapitalist society would prove such a captivating subject of discussion to such extra-architectural discourses as politics, sociology, and economics.

Le Corbusier in Paris unveiling his model for his Palais des Soviets (1931)

Le Corbusier sitting in front of the construction site for the Tsentrosoiuz Building in Moscow (March 1931)

The bulk of the major individual foreign architects and urbanists who contributed to the Soviet cause came from Germany. Such luminaries as Walter Gropius,[3] Ludwig Hilberseimer, and Peter Behrens each contributed to Soviet design competitions. Former Expressionists — now turned modernists — like Bruno Taut, his brother Max, Arthur Korn, Hans Poelzig, and Erich Mendelsohn all joined the greater project of socialist construction in the USSR.[4] Major architects also arrived from other parts throughout Western Europe, eager to participate in the Soviet experiment. Foremost among them, hailing from Switzerland, was the French-Swiss archmodernist Le Corbusier, whose writings on architecture and urbanism had already become influential in Russia since at least the mid-1920s. From France additionally appeared figures like André Lurçat and Auguste Perret,[5] lending their talents to the Soviet cause. The preeminent Belgian modernist Victor Bourgeois actively supported its architectural enterprise as well.

Foreign architects at work on Magnitogorsk, including Mart Stam and Johan Niegeman (circa 1931-1932)

Ernst May’s “May Brigade” (1930)

Ernst May lecturing in the Soviet Union on his proposal for Magnitogorsk (1930)

Ernst May dressed in heavy winter gear in the Soviet Union, late 1930

Besides the major individual figures attached to this effort, there existed several noteworthy aggregations of international architects and urbanists, under the heading of “brigades.” The German socialist Ernst May, mastermind of the highly-successful Neue Frankfurt settlement, traveled to Russia along with a number of his lesser-known countrymen, including Eugen Kaufmann, Wilhelm Derlam, Ferdinand Kramer,[6] Walter Kratz, and Walter Schwagenscheidt. The Austrians Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky (designer of the famous “Frankfurt Kitchen”), her husband Wilhelm Schütte, and Anton Brenner also accompanied May in his journeys.[7] Together with the Hungarian Bauhaus student Alfréd Forbát,[8] the German-Swiss builder Hans Schmidt, and theBauhaus and De Stijl veteran Mart Stam, originally from Holland, these architects comprised the famous “May’s Brigade” of city planning. Many other German architects and city-planners, still less well-known, belonged to May’s group as well: Hans Burkart, Max Frühauf, Wilhelm Hauss, Werner Hebebrand, Karl Lehmann, Hans Leistikow, Albert Löcher, Ulrich Wolf, Erich Mauthner, Hans Schmidt, and Walter Schulz, to list a few.[9]

André Lurçat in Moscow, 1934

Members of Hannes Meyer’s “Red Brigade” in the Soviet Union (1931)

Hannes Meyer, another Swiss German, also departed for Moscow, after being suddenly dismissed from his position as director of the Bauhaus on grounds of his leftist political sympathies.[10] He took with him seven of his best students from Dessau, who were themselves of quite varied backgrounds: Tibor Weiner and Béla Scheffler, both Hungarian nationals; Arieh Sharon, of Polish-Jewish extraction; Antonín Urban, a Czech architect; and finally Konrad Püschel, Philip Tolziner, René Mensch, and Klaus Meumann, all German citizens.[11] These members together comprised the so-called “Red Brigade.” A number of other German architects associated with Kurt Meyer’s (unrelated to Hannes) urban and suburban group were also shown in attendance at the international building conference in Moscow in 1932: Magnus Egerstedt, Josef Neufeld, Walter Vermeulen, E. Kletschoff, Julius Neumann, Johan Niegemann, Hans-Georg Grasshoff, Peer Bücking, and Steffen Ahrends.[12]

Albert Kahn’s Cheliabinsk tractor factory (1934)

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. and Mrs. Iofan at a banquet, Moscow (1937)

Czech modernists Vítězslav Nezval and Karel Teige in Moscow (1926)

The newly formed constellation of Eastern Europe that emerged out of the postwar dissolution of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires was also represented in force by some of its leading modernists. From Czechoslovakia, the great Constructivist poet and architectural critic Karel Teige[13] lent his incisive observations to the Soviet Union’s various attempts at regional and municipal planning. Two of Teige’s close compatriots in the Czech avant-garde, the functionalist architects Jiří Kroha[14] and Jaromír Krejcar,[15] were already active in the Soviet Union at that time. Besides Wiener, Scheffler, and Forbát, who were associated with May’s and Meyer’s groups in Moscow, the Hungarian modernists Laszlo Péri, Imre Perényi,[16] and Stefan Sebök[17] each worked independently for the Soviet state. Finally, the Polish avant-gardists Edgar Norwerth[18] and Leonard Tomaszewski[19] also collaborated with various organs of the government of the USSR during the execution of its second five-year plan.

The radical architect and Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer (1930)

Bruno Taut, Grete Schutte-Lihotsky, and others in the Soviet Union (1933)

A number of American architects contributed to the Soviet effort as well.  Albert Kahn, the celebrated builder of Detroit — along with his brother, Moritz Kahn — helped design over five hundred factories in the Soviet Union as part of its push toward industrialization.[20]  Thomas Lamb, the well-established constructor of many of America’s first cinemas, and Percival Goodman, an urban theorist who would later build many famous American synagogues, also offered their abilities to the Soviet state.[21] The pioneering American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, though he would not officially visit Russia until 1937, nevertheless spoke openly about the greatness of the Soviet project during the early 1930s. By the early 1930s, Wright was disillusioned with the capitalist socioeconomic system: “The capitalistic system is a gambling game. It is hard to cure gamblers of gambling and everybody high and low in this country prefers the gambler’s chance at a great fortune to the slower growth of a more personal fortune.” By contrast, he exclaimed the virtues of the Soviet project: “I view the USSR as a heroic endeavor to establish more genuine human values in a social state than any existing before. Its heroism and devotion move me deeply and with great hope.”[22]

VKhUTEMAS students, 1927

First OSA Conference, 1928

Despite the great influx of foreign modernists seen during this period, however, the influence of the new architectural avant-garde was hardly alien to the Soviet Union. On the contrary, it had begun to establish itself there as early as 1921 — if one discounts the renowned monument proposed by Tatlin for the Third International in 1918.[23] That year witnessed the appointment of the architects Nikolai Ladovskii, Nikolai Dokuchaev, and the sculptor Boris Efimov to the faculty of VKhUTEMAS, the well-known Moscow technical school often compared to the Bauhaus in Germany.[24] Along with Vladimir Krinskii, Konstantin Mel’nikov, and the international modernist El Lissitzky, Ladovskii and Dokuchaev went on to constitute the avant-garde group ASNOVA (the Association of New Architects) in 1923, though it would only publish the declaration of its existence in 1926. Ladovskii’s brightest pupil and laboratory assistant Georgii Krutikov would join the group upon graduating the academy in 1928. Opposed to ASNOVA, the equally-stalwart modernist OSA (Society of Modern Architects) formed the Constructivist school of architectural thought in 1925, led by such outstanding designers as Leonid, Aleksandr, and Viktor Vesnin and their chief theorist Moisei Ginzburg. Il’ia Golosov officially became a member in 1926, followed by two of their exemplary students, Ivan Leonidov and Nikolai Krasil’nikov, in 1927 and 1928 respectively. Though divergent in terms of their fundamental principles, both OSA and ASNOVA were united in their opposition to atavistic architecture and their mutual commitment to modernity.

Wall Street crash, 1929

Schmitt’s “Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy” incarnate: Burning of the German parliament, the Reichstag (1933)

The overwhelming gravity that the debates over Soviet urbanism held for the avant-garde, their seemingly high stakes, is difficult to emphasize enough. Just as the USSR was first embarking upon its five-year plans, the nations of the West were facing the threefold crisis of global capitalism, of parliamentary democracy,[25] and of the European sciences[26] in general. At no prior point had the future of the worldwide socioeconomic system of capital seemed so uncertain — never had its basis been so shaken. On nearly every front — economic, political, and epistemological — it faced defeat. Italy, Germany, and finally Spain fell beneath the rising tide of Fascism. Everywhere it seemed that Europe was entering into the darkness of Spenglerian decline.

Comrade Lenin clearing the Earth of the rabble (1920)

Workers of the World, Unite!

But by that same score, in a positive sense there had never been a planning project as ambitious as the Soviet centralized economy. It represented a moment of unprecedented opportunity for international modernists to build on the highest possible scale, the chance to realize their visions at the level of totality.[27] For with the huge projected budgets set aside for new construction toward the end of the 1920s, the modernists saw an opening to implement their theories not just locally, but on a regional, national, and — should the flames of revolution fan to Europe — a potentially international scale. This mere fact alone should hint at the reason so many members of the architectural avant-garde, who so long dreamed of achieving an “international style”[28] without boundaries, would be attracted to the Soviet cause. That the number of international representatives of the avant-garde swelled to such an unparalleled degree should come as no surprise, either, given the prospect of imminently realizing their most utopian dreams. In the midst of the collapse of the old order, as heralded by world war, pestilence (Spanish influenza), revolution, and a nearly universal depression, it appeared as if the modernists were being granted their deepest wish — of erecting a new society upon the ashes of that which had preceded it. “Our world, like a charnel-house, lays strewn with the detritus of dead epochs,” Le Corbusier had thundered in 1925.[29] In the wake of global instability, crash, and catastrophe, the Soviet five-year plan seemed to offer to him and his fellow avant-gardists the chance to wipe the slate clean.

VKhUTEMAS poster celebrating the Five-Year Plan

Poster for the First Five-Year Plan (1928), with vaguely antisemitic overtones

It is therefore little wonder that the tenor of the debates over Soviet urbanism should have been cast in such stark terms. The fate of the entire avant-garde, if not society itself, hung in the balance. Whichever principles won out might ultimately determine the entire course of future building for the USSR, and perhaps the world (pending the outcome of the seemingly terminal crisis in the West). Modernist architects, who had up to that point been mainly concerned with the design of individual structures, and only here and there touched on the greater problem of urbanism, now scrambled to articulate their theoretical stances on the issue of “socialist settlement.” As a number of rival positions emerged, they came into heated conflict with one another. Whole books were written and articles published in popular Soviet journals defending one theory and attacking all that opposed it. And so the disputes did not merely take on the character of modernism combating its old traditionalist rival, but that of a radically fractured unity of the modernist movement itself. The fresh lines of division being carved within the architectural avant-garde did not owe so much to national peculiarities as it did to the radicality of the question now being posed before it: that of the fundamental restructuring of human habitation. For the issues at hand were not simply the reorganization of already-existing cities, but also the construction of entirely new settlements from the ground up. The intransigent tone that the debates subsequently assumed is thus more a testament to the urgency and sincerity of the modernist theories of the city being put forth than it is to some sort of arbitrary disagreement over matters of trivial importance.

Le Corbusier, Sergei Eisenstein, and Andrei Burov (1928)

Members of the forcibly unionized Union of Soviet Architects (1932)

This point is especially important to stress, moreover, in light of some interpretations that have recently dismissed these crucial differences in the avant-garde’s architectural visions of utopia as a quantité négligible. Not long ago, the argument was advanced that these theoretical disputes amounted to little more than quibbling pettiness on the part of the members of the avant-garde. According to this version of events, the modernists merely dressed up their personal animosities, jealousies, and professional rivalries in high-sounding rhetoric and thereby ruined any chance for productive collaboration with one another. Moreover, it asserts that it was this very disunity that led to the modernists’ eventual defeat at the hands of the Stalinists. Weakened by the years of petty bickering, this argument maintains, the two main groups representing the architectural avant-garde (OSA and ASNOVA) were easily undercut by the fledgling, proto-Stalinist organization VOPRA, working in cahoots with the party leadership. Had the members of the avant-garde been willing to set aside their differences, this outlook would have it, they might have prevailed against the combined strength of their opponents.[30]

Plan for the Functional City (1932), for a conference that was to have been held in Moscow

Of course, this account almost completely overlooks the international dimension of the debates, choosing instead to narrowly focus on the faculty politics taking place within the walls of the VKhUTEMAS school of design. While this was doubtless an important stage of the debate, it can scarcely be considered the decisive grounds on which the war over Soviet architecture was waged. It is symptomatic that such an interpretation would leap suddenly from the middle part of the 1920s to the final defeat of the architectural avant-garde in the 1937, ignoring practically everything that transpired in between. As a result, it is able to treat the problem as a merely internal affair, concerning only Soviet architects. This then allows the importance of the tensions within the VKhUTEMAS leadership throughout the early- to mid-1920s to be grossly overstated.[31] Even if the field of inquiry is thus limited, however, the polemics can by no means be reduced to mere cynicism. Such bitterness and resentment could just as easily be an outcome of (rather than a ground for) heated argumentation.

Zinoviev in a motorcade (1929)

Lunacharskii at a congress of Working Artists (1923)

But this notion — that the real differences within the modernists’ debates over Soviet architecture and urbanism were largely exaggerated — is swiftly dispelled once one takes note of the extra-architectural interest surrounding their potential results. For architects were hardly the only ones worried about the form that new Soviet settlements would take. The ideological influence of architecture on society was not lost on non-architects within the Soviet hierarchy. Many thinkers, scattered across a wide range of vocations, were therefore drawn into the discourse on socialist city planning. Quite a few economists participated in the discussion. Besides Leonid Sabsovich, a writer for the state journal Planned Economy and a major figure in the debates, economists like Stanislav Strumilin (one of Planned Economy’s editors) and Leonid Puzis weighed in on the material aspects of the various schemas of town planning. Professional sociologist Mikhail Okhitovich joined OSA in 1928, and went on to become one of its major spokesmen. The celebrated journalist and author Vladimir Giliarovskii reported on some considerations of nervo-psychological health in the socialist city.[32] Even more telling of the perceived centrality of the problem of Soviet urbanism to the five-year plan is the number of high-ranking party members and government officials who wrote on the matter. The Commissar of Enlightenment Anatolii Lunacharskii, Lenin’s widow Nadezhda Krupskaia, the old guard Bolshevik Grigorii Zinov’ev, and the doctor and Commissar of Health Nikolai Semashko all devoted lengthy articles to the consideration of different proposed solutions to the issue of urban planning. So clearly, the detailed differences between the various Soviet urban projects concerned more than solely the architects.

Painting of Stalin atop the Kremlin in Moscow (1935)

Lazar’ Kaganovich, far right, Stalin’s Commissar of Railways and overseer of the rebuilding project for Moscow, including the Moscow metro system (1932)

Another historiographical point that must be made is that what appears to have been “Stalinist” from the outset could not have been recognized as such at the time. The emergent features of what came to be known as Stalinism — its bureaucratic deformities, thuggery, and cultural philistinism — had not yet fully crystallized by the early 1930s. While it is true that these qualities may have been prefigured to some extent by the failure of the German and Hungarian revolutions after the war, the USSR’s consequent isolation, and the cascading effects of the political involutions that followed — none of this could be seen as yet. The betrayed commitment to international revolution, the disastrous (if inevitable) program of “Socialism in One Country,” did not bear their fruits until much later. The residual hope remaining from the original promise of the revolution echoed into the next two decades, before the brutal realities of Stalin’s regime eventually set in. In 1930, there was no “Stalinist” architecture to speak of. Even the eclectic designs of the academicians did not fully anticipate what was to come. The contours of what would later be called “Stalinist” architecture — that grotesque hybrid-creation of monumentalist gigantism and neoclassical arches, façades, and colonnades — only became clear after a long and painful process of struggle and disillusionment. Toward the beginning of the decade, a number of possibilities seemed yet to be decided upon, and so the utopian dream of revolution continued to live on.[33]

Viktor Kalmykov, project “Saturn,” proposal for a levitating city (1930), studio of Nikolai Ladovskii

Soviet utopia: Proposal for Krasnoiarsk, the “red city” (1931)

Whatever latent realm of possibility may have still seemed to exist at the moment the Soviet Union initiated its planning program, however, its actual results admit of no such uncertainties. The defeat of modernist architecture was resounding and unambiguous. And while it would survive and even flourish in the West following the Second World War, the avant-garde left something of its substance behind in Russia. Its external form remained — with its revolutionary use of concrete, glass, and other materials, its austere lines and structural severity — but it had been deprived of its inner core, and now stood devoid of content. For architectural modernism had hitherto expressed an inseparable duality, and deduced its role as both a reflection of contemporary society and an effort to transform it. These two aspects, its attempt to create a universal formal language that corresponded to modern realities and its sociohistorical mission to fundamentally reshape those very realities, were inextricably bound up with one another. When the architectural avant-garde ultimately failed to realize itself by achieving this mission, it became cynical; its moment of opportunity missed, it chose instead to abandon the task of helping remake society. Cast out of the Soviet Union, the modernists let go of their visions of utopia and made their peace with the prevailing order in the West. They pursued traditional avenues like public contracts and individual commissions to accomplish each of their proposals. No longer did they dream of building a new society, but focused on limited projects of reform rather than calling for an all-out revolution. Emptied of its foundational content, however, modernism gradually gave way to post-modernism as architecture became even further untethered from its basis. Reduced to a set of organizational forms, modernist design grew increasingly susceptible to criticisms of its apparently “dull” and “lifeless” qualities. Modernism’s capitulation to the realities of bourgeois society doomed it to obsolescence. The modern itself had become passé.

Georgii Krutikov’s “flying city” (1929)

Georgii Krutikov's proposal for a "city of the future" (1929)

Georgii Krutikov’s proposed “city of the future” (1929)

Shuttlepod for Georgii Krutikov's "flying city" (1929)

Shuttlepod for the “flying city”

Framed in this way, this paper will assert that the outcome of the debates over Soviet urbanism in the 1930s sealed the fate of the international avant-garde. All of its prior commitments to general social change were reneged. Modernism’s longstanding duty to solve the problem of “the minimum dwelling,”[34] which for Marxists was closely tied into Engels’ work on The Housing Question,[35] was relinquished after only the first few CIAM conventions (1929-1931). Its resolution to put an end to wasteful (even criminal[36]) ornamentation and make all building more functional was scaled back to a mere stylistic choice, rather than a general social practice. Likewise, modernism’s call for a uniform, standardized, and industrialized architecture of the home was replaced by a tendency to custom-design each individual dwelling — usually the wealthier ones — as its spare, geometric style became chic among the upper classes. The mass-production of housing, serialized with interchangeable parts, was instead taken up by companies building in a more traditional style, hoping to turn a cheap profit housing students or the poor. Those bleak modernist housing complexes that were created all too often became places to merely stuff away the impoverished classes, cramped and out of sight. (That such places would become areas of high concentration for drug use and petty crime is only fitting). Finally, the quest for a universal architectural language was abandoned. This language was adopted exclusively by those particular architects who identified themselves with the modernist movement, and even then it was pursued on only a piecemeal basis.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s monument to Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg (1926)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (1958)

The Soviet Union alone had presented the modernists with the conditions necessary to realize their original vision. Only it possessed the centralized state-planning organs that could implement building on such a vast scale.[37] Only it promised to overcome the clash of personal interests entailed by the “sacred cow” of private property.[38] And only it had the sheer expanse of land necessary to approximate the spatial infinity required by the modernists’ international imagination.[39] The defeat of architectural modernism in Russia left the country a virtual graveyard of the utopian visions of unbuilt worlds that had once been built upon it. It is only after one grasps the magnitude of the avant-garde’s sense of loss in this theater of world history that all the subsequent developments of modernist architecture in the twentieth century become intelligible. For here it becomes clear how an architect like Mies van der Rohe, who early in his career designed the Monument to the communist heroes Karl Liebkneckt and Rosa Luxemburg in 1926, would curry favor with the Nazis in the 1930s,[40] and then later become the man responsible for one of the swankiest monuments to high-Fordist capitalism, the Seagram’s Building of 1958. And here one can see how Le Corbusier, embittered by the Soviet experience, would briefly flirt with Vichy fascism during the war before going on to co-design the United Nations Building in New York. Continue reading

“A Vision for an Emancipated Future”

Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cénotaphe à Newton (1784)

As if anticipating our own historical moment, Guy Debord once offered the following advice to anyone seeking to change the world: “Be realistic,” he insisted.  “Demand the impossible!”

It is perhaps no coincidence that the only politics befitting the dignity of human freedom today seems to us an impossibility.  We stand at the end of a long line of revolutionary defeats — some tragic, others farcical.  The world lies strewn with the detritus of dead epochs.  The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

And yet the past feels unbearably remote and out of reach, uncomprehended; it confronts us as an alien entity.  Yesterday’s grand visions of emancipation appear to us as so many distant, delicate daydreams — untenable, unthinkable.  Still in the background one can hear the faint echoes of La Marseillaise and L’Internationale, the notes all run together.

But these notes have largely been drowned out by the white noise of postmodernity.  The memory of such past struggles has faded, humanity’s deepest wish-fulfillments forgotten.  Instead we remain spellbound and transfixed by the current state of affairs.  We have lost the ability to imagine a society built on principles fundamentally different from our own.

Without an adequate understanding of the past, we have chained ourselves to the dumb reality of the present, abandoning all hope for a better future.  What little political imagination still survives is kept alive only by scavenging the desiccated remains of what once was possible.  We have thus set sail into the open seas of ahistory, and landed promptly in oblivion.  Only now are we beginning to glimpse the first rose-fingered rays of the dawn of a new era.

Despite all the emphasis placed upon “letting voices be heard” or “hearing voices” (one almost begins to feel schizophrenic) we have as yet been unable to voice a single demand.  Every attempt to articulate a unified vision of the world to come has been lost amidst the general cacophony and confusion.

Feelings of futility notwithstanding, we are nonetheless compelled to go back to the old drawing-board — to “give it another go.”  To launch a manifesto one has to want: A, B, & C; and fulminate against: 1, 2, & 3.  One must sign, shout, swear, and organize prose into a form that is absolutely and irrefutably obvious, in order to prove its ne plus ultra.

Section I: Liberty

But rather than just air a laundry-list of social grievances, a kitchen-sink of disconnected single issues divorced from any broader vision of global emancipation, we prefer to rally under the banner of one overarching principle that encompasses them all.  This is at once the most abstract, metaphysical, but for that very reason the most radical of all demands:

Humanity can accept nothing less than the promise of limitless, inalienable liberty — or what is the same, freedom.

This universal ideal has in recent years been rendered increasingly banal and diluted, robbed of the radicalism it once held.  Yet it is incumbent upon us to rescue this once noble notion from the clutches of its supposed spokesmen, to defend its honor against those who presently claim to act in its name.  For the false “freedom” that has so far been offered up to us under our present system is akin to the cheap sense of freedom one gets from selecting among various brands of the same basic product at the supermarket.  It is the illusory freedom of the slave who merely gets to freely choose his master.

The question of freedom must be posed afresh — in its most profound sense — so that it might be retrieved.  For in the answer to this question alone resides the secret of the Revolution.  The cry of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” still rings through the ages, but it has fallen on deaf ears.  Humanity must be awakened from its comatose state, its long ahistorical torpor, so that freedom can at last be realized.

By “freedom” or “liberty” is understood at least the following:

1. Freedom from oppression.
2. Freedom from want.
3. Freedom from fear.
4. Freedom from war (Kant’s “perpetual peace,” fœdus pacificum).
5. Freedom from disease.
6. Freedom from ignorance.
7. Freedom from apathy (the anomie described by Durkheim).
8. Freedom from boredom (the colorless tedium of daily life, Baudelairean ennui).
9. Freedom from imposed necessity.
10. Freedom without borders (liberté sans frontières).

The only limits that can be reasonably placed on freedom are in fact not limits at all: they only limit the false and shallow sense of freedom that has been sold to us under our present society.  Quite obviously, one person’s freedom cannot be had at the expense of another person’s freedom.  One cannot impinge upon the rights of others, and thus the civic freedom granted to every member of society does not grant anyone the license to kill, rape, exploit, or otherwise delimit the freedom of a fellow human being.  As Kant put it, “The definition of freedom would thus be as follows: freedom is the ability to act in ways in which one does no wrong to anyone else in so acting.”

Moreover, the freedom to live as one wants in the present cannot be at exercised at the expense of the freedom to live as one wants in the future.  This, we maintain, is the rational essence of the fashionable notion of “sustainability.”  Of course, this should not imply its converse, its abstract negation: living for tomorrow at the expense of living today.  Living freely should not be conceived as requiring some sort of new asceticism, the austerity measures of eco-scarcity.  Rather, this should challenge us to find ways of cultivating inexhaustible abundance.  Perhaps it is not just some happy accident of etymology that the old Aristotelian notion of εύδαιμονία (eudaimonia), traditionally translated as “the good life,” should at the same time signify an unparalleled “flourishing.”

Finally, the universal nature of this liberty would simultaneously entail the total equality of all society’s individual members, irrespective of their particular race, gender, age, or religious/sexual orientation.  The freedoms guaranteed under an emancipated society would extend to all the peoples of the world.  This would make possible, for the first time, the true “liberty of all” (omnium libertati).

In order to ensure the freedom and equality that such a society would grant to each of its individual members, the wealth of the world must be made equally available to all.  However, this should not be mistaken for some vulgar distributist notion, whereby society would simply “carve up the pie” and apportion the pieces out equally (according to fixed quotas).  Different people have different needs.  The needs of a blind man are not the same as someone who can see.  True freedom would thus require that each person’s individual needs be met.  Only then would they be free to creatively develop and express their individuality as they wish.

To illustrate this idea, we may take as an example the commodity pepper — a spice once so rare and valuable that entire wars were fought over its possession.  Today, however, if one goes and sits down in a restaurant, she will typically notice that there is a well-stocked peppershaker at every table.  The question of whether each person has the exact same quantity of pepper as her neighbor never even arises.  It exists in such abundance that one simply takes as much as she needs.  In a truly emancipated society, this concept would be generalized to include all the needs of society.

Section II: History

All this said, let us briefly take stock of our present situation and how we came to this point.  Once this has been achieved, we might be better able to discern the practical exigencies that face us in our time, and from there ascertain the possibilities for an emancipated future moving forward.  A glance into the past drives us on toward the future, inflames our courage to go on living, and kindles the hope that justice will someday come, that happiness is waiting just on the other side of the mountain we are approaching.

From Nature we have built up our own “second nature” — society — which still presently compels us and presses us into its service.  To this day we treat its every blind caprice and passing fancy if it were the outcome of some natural law, eternal and unchanging.  Its periodic crises appear to us as accidental, a result of human error.  In reality, however, the entire rotten system is founded upon a perpetual crisis occurring at the core of production.  International capital is as the insatiable god Baal, into whose bloody maw millions upon millions of steaming human sacrifices are thrown.

Though this “second nature” that surrounds us is a product of our own making, it has acquired a phantom objectivity all its own.  It appears to us in an estranged form, as something that operates independently of our will.  Unconscious — and seemingly devoid of agency — we remain entrapped within a prison we ourselves have built.  At the same time, society has further alienated itself from the original Nature from whence it sprang.  We have endured the disenchantment of the world; Nature presents itself to us only in a mediated and obscure fashion.  As helpless spectators we are forced to look on as modern society, driven by its fathomless hunger to extract surplus-value, devours the whole Earth.

This overwhelming feeling of helplessness owes to a severe frustration with the faculty of action in the modern world.  That is, it indicates an underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency.  In a historical situation of heightened helplessness, gestures of “resistance” against the dominant order have both served to express the rage of helplessness while at the same time helping to suppress the feeling of disquietude that comes along with this helplessness.  The idea of fundamentally transforming society has for the most part been bracketed and, instead, replaced by the more ambiguous notion of “resistance.”

In the absence of effective leadership and long-term goals, campaigns of activism-for-its-own-sake amount to a politics of acting out, an unreflective and compulsive desire for theatrical “agitation,” “consciousness-raising,” and “resistance.”  Unwilling to acknowledge this looming sense of lost agency, participants in such blind actions refuse to reflect on their own impotence.  By stubbornly denying the inconsequence of their own actions, however, they only perpetuate their helpless, disenfranchised state.

But what can conquer this feeling of helplessness is the force of life itself; historical consciousness and activity can annul it.  In the final analysis, this feeling is simply the product of tradition, an instinctual vestige of millennia of terror and illiteracy.  More recently, it has been the result of humanity’s repeated failures to resolve its historical dilemma.  Its origin can be traced, however.  To make it the object of history is to recognize its emptiness and overcome it.  By bringing feeling, as well as fact, into the sphere of history, one is finally able to see that it is in history alone that the explanation of our present situation lies.

For we feel an enormous, irresistible force from our human past.  We recognize the good things it has brought us, in the knowledge that what once was possible might someday be possible again.  But we also recognize the bad, in the many living fossils — anachronistic remnants and outmoded states of mind — that persist into the present.  And this is why we must call ourselves modern.  Because, though we feel the past fueling our struggle, it is a past that we have tamed — our servant, not our master — a past which illuminates and does not overshadow us.

Until we gain self-conscious mastery over this social world we have created, however, humanity will remain unfree.  To date, men have made their own history, but have not made it as they please; they have not made it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.  Once we are able to finally take command of the vast forces of production we have released into the world, humanity’s own social organization — hitherto confronting it as a necessity imposed by history — will now become the result of its own free action.  The heteronomous forces that have up to this point governed history now pass under the control of humanity itself.

Only from that time forth will humanity make its own history, rather than be made by history.  It will signal humanity’s ascent from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

Behold what quiet now settles upon the Earth.  Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.  In hours like these, one rises to address history, the ages, and all creation.

This, then, is the task that confronts us.

Section III: Democracy

So it is with this vision that we claim our rightful inheritance to the legacy handed down to us by the great radical thinkers of the past.  And thus do we also take up the mantle of democracy once again in opposition to those who would deny it to us.  With Jefferson, we swear “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  And with the firebrand Paine, we unflinchingly proclaim that

Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations that preceded it.  The vanity and presumption of governing from beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all despotisms.

And if this vision of human emancipation seems too unimaginable, too wildly utopian, I have merely to reply that the only more utopian idea is the naïve belief that things will ever change under the present system — that the prevailing order could somehow be reformed through piecemeal legislation within the framework of the existing state.

A word about the philosophy of reform.  The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to its august claims have been born of earnest struggle.  The conflict has been exciting, agitating, and all-absorbing.  For the time being, it puts all other tumults to silence.  Humanity must do this or effectively do nothing at all.  If there is no struggle, there is no progress.

For “democracy” is nothing but the proclaiming and exercising of “rights” that are very little and very conventionally exercised under the present order.  But unless these rights are proclaimed and a struggle for their immediate realization waged — and unless the masses are educated in the spirit of such a struggle — emancipation is impossible.  This brings into sharpest possible relief the relationship between reform and revolution.

Every freshly drafted legal constitution is but the product of a revolution.  Throughout history, revolution has been the act of political creation, while legislation is the political expression of the life of a society that has already been established.  In other words, the work of reform does not contain its own force independent from revolution.  During each historic period, work for reforms is carried on only by the impetus of the last revolution.  Or, to put it more concretely, reforms can only come by way of the institutional scaffolding and state apparatus set in place by the last revolutionary struggle.

These, in turn, invariably reflect the underlying structure of society that sparked this struggle in the first place.  From this real basis there arises a legal and political superstructure, along with definite corresponding forms of social consciousness.  After reaching a certain level of development, the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the already existing relations of production.  An epoch of social revolution commences.

Only after this has taken place can reforms become both lasting and meaningful.  Democracy cannot be achieved through cosmetic, incremental alterations to the existing state.  Real reform thus presupposes that the basis of society has already been radically transformed.  Along with it, this would require a simultaneous reconfiguration of the state.

But all this begs the question: Can a state ever exist without state repression? Or is the state inconceivable apart from servitude and subjection?

History teaches us that the state has always served as an instrument of the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society.  It would be folly to think it could act otherwise.  So long as the state exists there will be violence.  Indeed, it even lays claim to a monopoly on violence (or the use of “legitimate” force).  A transitional state may be necessary until society learns to freely govern itself, without recourse to some external body.  But the aim of such a state would be its own self-abolition, as its functions become increasingly redundant.  After a certain point, this state would simply “wither away” of its own accord — leaving society to democratically pursue its own ends.

The chief object of politics must therefore ultimately be freedom from the necessity of politics; this alone is what makes politics so indispensable today.

Dies Iræ

Let it be remembered, however, that this journey through history has hardly been a one-way street.  The triumph of the human spirit and democracy is by no means guaranteed.  For humanity has not just blithely wandered on from victory to victory, along a linear path toward progress.  Condorcet wrote his Future Progress of the Human Mind while awaiting the guillotine.  History has been made subject to any number of regressions and cycles of recurrence.  At best, history can be said to proceed in a cyclolinear fashion, charting a spiral course across the annals of time.

This should serve as both an admonition and a call to arms.  For until humanity chooses to transcend the tyranny of the present, unless it seizes the destiny that history has afforded it — we will be doomed to relive all the injustices of the past.  If humanity fails to take advantage of the opportunity that lies before it, the same relations of inequality and unfreedom will be reproduced yet again.  It will be just as Zarathustra warned:

[We] will return, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this snake — not to a new life or a better life or a similar life, but to this same and selfsame life…to once again teach the eternal recurrence of all things — to once again speak the word about the great earth of noon and human beings.

Mais tout cela sera balayé [But all this will be swept away],” André Gide once remarked, unless the cyclical return of the wrong triumphs after all.  Humanity’s survival is presently threatened by the very forms of its social constitution, unless humanity’s own global subject becomes sufficiently self-aware to save itself from catastrophe.  The possibility of progress, of averting the most extreme calamity, has migrated to this global subject alone.

This idea of historical progress must not, however, be conceived as a movement through homogeneous, empty time, but as a revolutionary chance to fight for the oppressed past — to blast open the continuum of history.  For our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption.  Not only for the sake of our liberated grandchildren, but for the sake of our enslaved ancestors as well, must we carry out this mission.  The dead task us.  Those yet unborn beseech us.  And this is to say nothing of the many who to this day continue to suffer in squalor and destitution.  All humanity yearns to be lifted out from under the yoke of oppression.

The fate of the entire world thus hinges upon humanity’s decision.  The tired, the hungry, and the impoverished all await the final outcome of our deliberation with bated breath.  What will our decision be?