Boris Groys Born in 1947 in Petersburg. Philosopher, art theorist. Lives in Koeln, Germany.
Question: In your recently published book "The Communist Postscript" the question of the universal meaning of the Soviet experience is formulated with great clarity. What is behind this updating of the meaning of Communism? Why has it turned out to be necessary and possible today? What kind of social or ideological context is this message addressed to?
Boris Groys: Above all Communism is of itself a universal doctrine. It is addressed to the whole of humanity. And the Soviet experiment was an attempt to create a model of society, which could potentially be realised in any country...
If I do also feel some sort of nostalgia for something, then it is for Communist internationalism and universalism. Unfortunately, now universalism has become a scarce commodity. Practically all the contemporary ideological programmes: be it political Islam, Western style democracy or the Russian national idea – from the very outset pens itself in to fairly narrow geographical, ethnic and cultural boundaries. With time, even Soviet Communism was turned in the imagination of Russian patriots into something along the lines of the supreme stage of the Russian national idea. Thus, the main impulse that motivates me today to write about Communism – is a polemic one. One wants to recall that there were times when people dared to think and act with universalism in their sights.
Question: And all the same, even if one were to agree with the hypothesis expressed by you that the USSR's self annihilation came about in full accordance with the dialectic essence of Communist ideology, the camera flash of Communism has left us disorientated. Did we gain anything more from the Soviet experience than nostalgia? Or otherwise, is this nostalgia fraught with the resource of the live dialectic that was the real experience of Communism?
B. Groys: In the Soviet experience there is one historically timeless aspect: The Soviet Union demonstrated the possibility that a society could exist without the market. Until the appearance of the Soviet Union all non-market socialist models for the construction of society had remained theoretical and utopian. The Soviet Union showed that the capitalist market is not a vital condition for society to function effectively. The circumstance that the existence of the Soviet Union was limited in time can not serve as a repudiation of this basic fact. Athenian Democracy was also a short-lived phenomenon and was only initially repeated in the 18th century, i.e. more than 2 thousand years after its demise. And, nevertheless the creators of French and American democracy in the 18th century were successful precisely because they could call upon the experience of Athenian democracy as a historically accomplished fact. This means that the Soviet experience of a socialist non-market type of organisation for society could in the future serve as a prototype for the creation of a society of the same type – although it could be on a completely different basis and in completely different historical circumstances.
But also in the current situation, in which the victory of capitalism, including also in Russia, is beyond doubt, capitalism is revealing in its post-Soviet form the artificiality of its political construction. The Western ideology of capitalism is based on the fiction of "natural rights". Capitalism is usually described by its followers as emanating directly from the nature of man pure and simple. It is precisely therefore the Marxist idea, from Marx himself to Adorno, that understood the transfer to a socialist society as "the leap from the reign of necessity to the reign of freedom". For this purpose what was meant was the very liberation from the laws of nature, incorporated, as it would seem, in the laws of the capitalist market. However, the experience of contemporary capitalist Russia, and indeed, that of contemporary China, is forcing us to look at the laws of the capitalist market from a completely different perspective. In both of these cases capitalism has revealed itself to be a political project that is being put into effect under government control. Put another way, the capitalist market is revealing its artificial, constructed and unnatural nature.
One can also say that post-socialist capitalism is being drawn into the standard Hegelian-Marxist historical dialectic, instead of approaching its perfection, as it was presented, for example, by Francis Fukuyama in his famous book. This artificiality of capitalism has been engrained in the genetic memory of every country in which the development of capitalism was interrupted by a socialist phase. In this sense a nostalgia for socialism does not differ from a premonition of its possible return. And this in all likelihood is the main contribution of the populations of the former socialist countries to the economy of the contemporary political imagination.
Question: And all the same Communism also has other connotations in contemporary political culture: and far from everyone feels nostalgia for it. Do you have any arguments against the liberal criticism according to which Communism is synonymous to totally repressive regimes? Do you have any objections to the criticism of the left for whom a yearning for the Soviet is essentially a yearning for hierarchy? Because unlike ancient Athens, Soviet Russia is not identified with democracy in the political memory of either the left or right?!
B. Groys: The liberal and democratic criticisms of Soviet Communism are undoubtedly correct. I do not think that one can find any convincing arguments against these criticisms. But at the same time it also has to be said that the Communist criticism of liberal democratic society as a society in which economic inequality prevails is also correct. And it is difficult to make an objection to this criticism. In general criticism, no matter what, as a rule, is one hundred per cent correct. It is for this very reason that I am usually inclined to avoid a critical position.
My analysis of Communism is dictated not by the desire to justify or judge it, but exclusively by the desire to understand it. As far as democracy is concerned and the possibility of a combination of democracy and Communism, then from a historical perspective this question remains open: the thing is that up to now we only know democracy as one of the possible systems of government by a Nation-state. Democracy is the power of the people. When this power is declared the question always arises: who are these people, who are summoned to rule. So far only one answer has been given to this question and that is: the nation. The concept of the nation arose during the French Revolution in parallel with the emergence of the contemporary concept of democracy. The French Revolution was also understood as the struggle of the nation against the aristocracy. Therefore democratic revolutions and movements unavoidably lead to nationalism.
The modern condition of the post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe, including Russia, is characterised firstly by nationalism as the sole ideology that can guarantee at least some degree of social community. Hence also the endless inter-ethnic conflicts and wars. The issue each time is about defining what sort of "demos" it should be that is putting into practise its "cratos". Hence it is evident that democracy is not devoid of its own well known problems. By this token it becomes clear that the combination of Communism and democracy poses a particular difficulty, because Communism understands itself as an international and even non-national principle of power. And thus goes beyond the bounds of the national state, which is the place where democracy emerges and develops.
Question: You have repeatedly been opposed to the critical discourse of the Western or "bourgeois" left. You show that this discourse within the conditions of capitalism is one of the commodities on the intellectual market and is therefore the subject of consumption and not an instrument for the transformation of reality. However, now, at the moment of the considerable weakening of the positions of the Western and even more so, the non-Western left, that has begun since the break up of the USSR, such an assertion only serves to support the general mood of pessimism. In addition, you set forth this description from a position of strength – as if the Soviet Union was still in existence and the dialectical materialism was endowed with all the historical power of those times. If the discourses of the Western left can be surmised as being totally ineffective, then your position looks idealistic, considering the lack of real historic strength on which it could rely on. Or do you believe in the strength of the fiction of the provocative gesture for its own sake?
B. Groys: First and foremost, it seems to me that the search for the real strength, which can make our "idealistic" intellectual constructs a reality, is one of the variations of the aspiration towards efficiency, turnover and investment return that are so characteristic of contemporary capitalism. It's not for nothing that Russian capitalism is also criticised for not sufficiently quickly installing good new ideas into production. However, this sort of criticism was also often heard in the Brezhnev era. The same also applies to provocation. It is calculated for its quick effect for a short period of time. I prefer to widen the time horizon and talk about things, which can be realised – if indeed they can be realised in general – for example, in two and a half thousand years, because we are happily talking and I am also talking in my book, about a model of state, created by Plato two and half thousand years ago...
Now let us turn to the new and very latest philosophical teachings of the left. I am, of course, not criticising them for the fact that they are on the left. The point is that all these teachings to some or other extent place the theme of "desire" as the main motor behind personal and social activities. The discourse of desire, however, is linked closely with the discourse of consumption. The contemporary philosophical tradition of the left has its own origins in the "hedonistic left" of the sixties. And in our time many sociologists consider the cultural revolution of 1968 the point of transition from the society of production to the society of consumption. In this sense the Soviet perestroika can be considered to be the 68 revolution from the top down (it stands to reason, a very delayed one). The search for "the Other", the desire to knock the bottom out of the social order, to organise a celebration and rid oneself of all the monotony of everyday existence are typical signs of consumer consciousness. The expectation of the messianic coming of world revolution is, therefore, easily substituted by a trip to Italy or, at least, a trip to a nice Italian restaurant.
Genuinely revolutionary movements always begin with the introduction of a new revolutionary asceticism and the establishment of a new order that is always tougher than the old order. There is nothing more monotonous than utopia, and for all that it is only the utopian idea that is truly revolutionary. As it happens, I was recently re-reading Mikhail Bakhtin and noted his delight regarding the Renaissance's zest for life, which embodied the carnival desire of the mass of the people. But Renaissance society like any other purely consumer society completely collapsed historically. The revolutionary shift of epoch was the result of a Lutheran/Calvinist and then Rousseauesque asceticism. Therefore any revolutionary situation, as also in general any situation of deep social change, can emerge only, if sufficiently large layers of the population will be prepared to reject instant consumption – in favour of a new asceticism. How long will we have to wait for this moment to arrive – is a question that this author unfortunately has no answer for.