A Message from the Emperor

Image: Michael Erhardsson


Communism was frustrated and turned into a dream. But Russian revolutionary momentum and American practicality remain two opposing choices in life.

“Make old dreams strong so that this world of ours does not lose heart” (Ezra Pound, The light spent, 1908).

“The Emperor, so it is said, has sent you, the humble fellow, the insignificant shadow lost in the remotest corner in front of the imperial sun. On his deathbed, he sent a message just for you. He ordered the messenger to kneel beside the bed and whispered the message to him; so much importance did he attach to it that he ordered the messenger to whisper it back, again, in his ear. Then, with a nod, he confirmed his guess.

In front of everyone, who came to witness the death - all the walls were removed and, in the spacious and high open staircases, the great princes of the Empire lined up in a ring. In the face of all this, he delivered his message. The messenger immediately set out on his journey; a powerful, tireless man; thrusting now with his right arm, now with his left, he pushed his way through the crowd; if he met resistance, he would point to his chest, where the symbol of the sun glowed; the way thus became easier for him than it would have been for any other man.

But the multitude is vast; their houses never end. How he would fly if he could reach the open fields, how fast he would fly and then he would hear the wondrous pounding of his fists on his door. But instead he tires almost aimlessly; still, he only makes his way through the inner chambers of the palace; he will never come to an end; and if he got nothing he would win; in sequence, he must fight his way down the ladder; but if he got it he would gain nothing.

Behold, the courts would still have to be bypassed; and then the courts, the second palace which encloses the first; and again the chambers and stairs; and once more another palace; and so on for thousands of years; and if, finally, he broke through the outermost gate – but that could never, never happen – the capital, the center of the world, crammed with its own rubbish. No one could get out of this situation even with a message from a dead person. The subject, however, sits at his window and dreams about it, when night falls” (Franz Kafka, An Imperial Message.

1883: Marx dies, Kafka is born. The metaphor created by the latter, explains, insinuates and, in its own way, indirectly expresses the following fact: it is only with the weapon of political irony that the tragic gravity of history can be fought today. The messenger, with his missive, did not leave the imperial palace; he left, but he became entangled in the long sequence of rooms, in the layout of successive courtyards, in the infinite mansions, on the interior staircases and then in the other palaces, crowded with things, events, masses, institutions, guards, crowds and fights. The tangle appears impenetrable. It becomes a space-time that is in continuous flux and change. Now all this is what we call modern capitalism.

The messenger did not escape the palace, but by passing through it he created an internal disturbance. However, parts of the message were received, inspiring fear in the princes and a certain hope in the people. It is already something, an occurrence that is far from insignificant. All this demonstrates that the messenger tried to leave the palace, because the message he was carrying was necessary. But he did not complete the mission.

However, the fact that he tried to do so produced an awareness of how things really are: something will have passed on to those who followed him. This event is irreversible: one can argue that it was wrong, one can forget what happened, but none of these attitudes can be sustained for long. The message was not delivered; however, it was not lost. That's all that's left to say. And if that were the only thing left to do, it would be enough simply to know – and make it known – that she lives well.

The first letter of John the Evangelist: the one who was heard, the one who contemplated, the one whose hands touched, is declared here. And these things speak to all, that the joy may be complete. The beginning of the first century and the beginning of the twentieth are somewhat similar. The dazzling beginning, the messianic message, the eschatological perspective that “shows eternal life”; against this perspective, a harsh and tragic reaction – war, crisis, massacre – returns to the peace of a hundred years: a restorative innovation operation (a new name for the conservative revolution).

What did the labor movement lose? There were orators speaking in the desert. They were not heard. But that wasn't her destiny, to be heard in her own time. No, it is rather the seed sown in the field of the future. But for the plant to come out, grow, bear fruit and for the fruit not to be lost, something more is needed. What is the missing message?

I know it's scandalous to think about it: what's missing is the form of the Church. This, by the way, has been tried, but has not been successful. The revolution demands an institution that will last not decades but centuries. Just like the Church itself. To be preserved in time, for those to come, the liberating event, always a momentary act – the taking of the Winter Palace – must be given a permanent form. The transmutation of force into form is politics that persists, and only then – does it become history, comprehensive, complete and unshakable. And it is necessary to know, woe to those who do not know it, that history, in the face of the institutions that contain it, is a mixture of good and evil.

It was Giorgio Agamben who thought of returning to the young Ratzinger, reader of liber regularum, the work of the fourth-century Donatist heretic Tychonius. Ratzinger dwells on the second rule of Liber, Domini corpore bipartitio, “of the twofold body of the Lord.” This doctrine of bipartitum corpus It is very interesting to think about politics. The Church's body, in so far as it is the Lord's body, has two sides, a "left" and a "right," one guilty and the other blessed. Its two faces are found in the Scriptures: beetle sum et decora, says the bride of the Canticle of Songs, “I am black and attractive”. The bride of Christ, the Church, has both sin and grace in her.

Here is what Agamben wrote: ““Ratzinger emphasizes the difference between this thesis and Augustine's preaching; however, he clearly drew inspiration from her for his idea of ​​a Church formed of good and evil. “[In Tyconium] there is not that clear antithesis of Jerusalem and Babylon which is so characteristic of Augustine. Jerusalem is at the same time Babylon, it includes the other in itself. Both constitute a single city, which has a “right” side and a “left” side. Tyconius did not develop, like Augustine, a doctrine of the two cities, but that of a double city, with two sides”.

No one should think of linking these two sides, left and right, something that is currently being discussed in the bar, an option that is decided at the ballot box. This is a very serious matter. If even at the time of the Last Judgment there is a Church of Christ and a Church of Antichrist, if in history there is a State of the just and a State of the wicked, then good and evil must exist not only in the same body politic, but in the same body. body of the “politician”. As Hegel said before Marx, whoever die Weltändern (changes in the world) to transform life, you must, first of all, accept this ineliminable and irresolvable mysterium iniquitatis (mystery of iniquity) of the human condition and, with peace in the heart, fight without hope of a definitive revelation at the end of days.

Kafka questions: “Great, tall commander-in-chief, leader of crowds, who leads despair through mountain passes, which no one else can find under the snow. Well, who gives you strength? He is the one with the clear vision”.

March-April 1917: While Kafka sent his message, Lenin wrote the April theses. February had brought the bourgeois democratic revolution. "Dual power" was in effect: the Provisional Government, which had overthrown the Romanov dynasty, coexisted with the Soviet of Workers' Deputies, which dated back to the Petrograd Soviet formed in the 1905 revolution.

Lenin had just completed and dispatched his “letters from afar” from Dadaist Zurich. To Stockholm, then through Finland, put in a sealed railroad car, by agreement of the German authorities – an ingenious tactical use of the enemy – he had reached Russia.

In the Tauride Palace, where the Petrograd Soviets held their meetings, he addresses a gathering made up of Social Democrats, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Independents. Read them the April theses: “The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution – which, owing to insufficient class consciousness and organization of the proletariat, has placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie – into its second stage, it must put power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sectors of the peasants. […]

The masses must be made to see that soviets of workers' deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government and that therefore the task now is, while this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic and persistent explanation of the errors of his tactics, an explanation specially adapted to the practical needs of the masses. […]

Not a parliamentary republic – going back to a parliamentary republic of workers' deputies would be a step backwards – but a republic of soviets of workers', agricultural and peasants' deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom. Abolition of the police, army and bureaucracy. For the publication in Pravda, Lenin notes that "the standing army must be replaced by the arming of the whole people".

“The salaries of all employees, all elective and irreplaceable at any time, must not exceed the average salary of a competent worker. […] Confiscation of all land properties. Nationalization of all land in the country, the land will be used in accordance with the local soviets of workers' and peasants' deputies. It is necessary to organize soviets of deputies of poor peasants. The creation of a model farm on each of the large estates (ranging in size from 100 to 300 deciatines [800 acres], according to local conditions and the decisions of local bodies, under the control of the Soviets of Agricultural Workers' Deputies, but under public supervision”.

“The immediate union of all the country's banks into a single national bank; institute control over it by the Soviet of Workers' Deputies. It is not our immediate task to "introduce" socialism, but only to place social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the soviets of workers' deputies. […]”

We demand a “communal state”; in a note, Lenin adds: “that is, a state of which the Paris Commune was the prototype”]. […]

Party name change – a note from Lenin reads: “instead of “social democracy”, whose official leaders all over the world betrayed socialism and defected to the bourgeoisie (the “defencists” and the vacillating “kautskyites”), it should be called the Communist Party].

Here is the message: "The tasks of the proletariat in the current revolution". And here is the messenger, off on his mission, Marx's whisper in his ear, exactly repeated. Carr recounts the story of that meeting when Lenin read the April Theses for the first time: “Bogdanov interrupted the presentation with shouts: “delirium, this is the delirium of a madman”; Goldenberg, another ex-Bolshevik, declared that "Lenin had proposed himself as a candidate for a European throne vacant for thirty years, Bakunin's throne"; and Steklov, editor of the Izvestia, who would soon join the Bolsheviks, added that Lenin's speech consisted of "abstract constructions".

Lenin's speech was attacked from all sides, only Kollontai spoke in support of it; however, he left the hall without exercising his right of reply. That same evening, he re-read the theses to a meeting of Bolshevik leaders and, once again, found himself completely isolated.

O Pravda published the theses on April 7, 1917, but the next day a leadership statement signed by Kamenev emphasized that the theses constituted only "Lenin's personal opinion". And on the same day, the Petrograd party committee rejected them with 13 votes against, two in favor and one abstention.

These are the first signs of the difficulties that the political message will encounter in navigating the palaces of history. But this time – “the XNUMXth of November is early, but the XNUMXth of November is too late” – the message eventually reached its destination. Behold, miracles also exist in politics. Moreover, fortunately, the myth continues to transmit them. From that day forward, future humanity will keep it in its memory. So it's possible! It is possible to invert the power between the low and the high: those above, those below; those below, above.

It is true that a messenger is “a vigorous, tireless man”, as Giulio Schiavoni says in his translation; that is, “a robust and tireless man”, according to Rodolfo Paoli. “If you encounter resistance, point to the sun symbol imprinted on your chest. He acts faster than anyone else,” reads one version. And “if the way is obstructed, he points to the chest on which is a symbol of the sun; in this way he acts more easily than anyone else ”- reads the other.

That's it? No, that's the only reason it wasn't a victory. For the bourgeoisie, revolution always leads to wars, just like Napoleon's. However, the war of the proletariat leads to revolution, just like Lenin's. The dialectic of revolution and restoration worked differently in the histories of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. At first, restoration comes quickly, but revolution wins in the long run. The opposite occurs in the second: the revolution lasted, even if not long enough for its needs; restoration was imposed as a definitive result; perhaps even, it could never have happened otherwise. So it was written.

“The tasks of the proletariat in the current revolution”, is an eschatological message. For, it fits into the eternal story of salvation, sacred – not secular. It is the oppressed who rise up. Not the "men", but "humanity” in revolt. With this message – and this messenger – it was translated into political action. For the first time. Therefore, his victory was irresistible.

If the message whispered in the ear does not find the messenger to bear it with power, forcing its way through the crowd, then it does not reach, it does not escape the tangle of palaces. The great and therefore tragic event of the XNUMXth century taught this.

Instead, it's just the messenger who doesn't bring any message that arrives because they let him through. This lesson is taught by the minor, comic event labeled the XNUMXst century. Here, the prophecy was fulfilled: the medium is the message. The messenger is a proclamation. Only that it is allowed to come and go, democratically; never something new.

The catastrophe is that everything remains as it is. Nihilism is equivalent to accepting everything as it is. Perhaps Russia was the only soil capable of receiving this seed, the only space-time in which the idea could have become history. Russian spirituality is what explains, deep down, that divine madness that was the “proletarian October”.

Alexis Tocqueville caught a glimpse of the faint figure of the future. Communism in Russia and democracy in America are like the two vast islands on which the “modern” has sunk in its long journey. Temporarily perhaps, because other islands on other continents are still emerging. And today, one of those two great ships arrived in port, while the other was wrecked. Democracy was realized; she built a world for herself.

Communism was frustrated and turned into a dream. But Russian revolutionary momentum and American practicality remain two opposite choices in life, two alternative forms of existence. And I feel like saying something that is scandalous today: that freedom is in the first, not in the second. I add, repeating a polemical statement: naturally one can be free by going through many routes, but in the XNUMXth century I consider the communist route to be the royal road. Speaking for myself, I know that I would never have the freedom that I feel, within me, without having gone through, in my thoughts and in my life, the historical experience of communism.

Mario Tronti (1931-2023) was a philosopher and politician. Author, among other books, of Operate and capitalize (DeriveApprodi) (https://amzn.to/3P3VjoM).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on sidecar blog da New Left Review.

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