Wu Ming’s “Proletkult”

13 February, 2021 · Arts and enterteinment> Literature

The premise was as appealing as it could be: retelling Bogdanov’s Red Star amid the 1917 revolution. The main character, Leonid, actually a surrogate for Bogdanov himself, would have had a daughter in the communist Mars. The young woman comes back to look for him in the midst of the world revolution. But no. We discover that the plot begins in 1927, in the midst of the Stalinist counterrevolution, shortly before the killing and purging of the generation that had carried out the revolution. And that the authors replace historical context with a jumble, a tangle even, of prejudices and distortions… A tangle that is anything but innocent.

The tangle

Cover of the 1925 Russian edition of “Red Star”

The book opens with the famous Tbilisi heist. This is the only way to place Stalin as having any relevance to the history of the Russian Bolsheviks. The focus on that attack also made it possible to present a Lenin of Machiavellian morality who in theory accepts a Marxist political line -not to rob banks- while executing the opposite. The birth of the workers’ party that will come to bring together hundreds of thousands of militant workers is thus reduced to a Far West Caucasian adventure.

Change of scene: Bogdanov meets Lunacharsky and Krupskaia in 1927. The story hints that the Proletkult was incorporated into the state by some kind of Bolshevik totalitarian logic. There are first references to the split between Bogdanov and the Bolshevik core. Lenin, on spurious grounds – having been left in the minority in the course of a discussion – charges against Bogdanov’s empiromonism leading to the latter’s expulsion from the party.

The book moves on. In a whining tone it picks up the old liberal-libertarian thesis: the Russian revolution did not fail because the world revolution was defeated and the Russian proletariat became exhausted and practically dissolved by the effect of the civil war. According to this traditional anarchist theory, this defeat had nothing to do with the class struggle, but rather with the centralism of the Bolshevik party, the alleged authoritarianism of Lenin and Trotsky and a conception of the party and the revolution that rejected pluralism. All this would have created an infamous dictatorship out of its own dynamic by itself because… the Russian proletariat supposedly lacked sufficient cultural background. It would take not one but a hundred revolutions, says the young alien protagonist. Or in other words: we’d better give it up…. And the book moves on, tangling up the tangle and conveying a fatalistic, defeatist and actually legitimizing feeling of stalinism and the political expressions of the counterrevolution.

Untangling the tangle a bit

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Lenin and Bogdanov playing chess with Gorki as a spectator. Capri, 1908.

Before the 1905 revolution, the weight of the populist tradition is evident among those who fought against the feudal autocracy by trying to push for a bourgeois-democratic revolution. Russian populism, a movement of the petty bourgeoisie, embraced every possible nihilistic and romantic derivative. Among them banditry. Marxists in general, not only the Mensheviks, were aware of the counterproductive character of such policies for the development of class consciousness, even in what they were beginning to define as a permanent revolution. Rejecting armed attacks and holdups and putting mass action – strikes, political mobilizations – at the center and thus centering the class itself was what signaled the difference in aims and morality of the Marxists vis-à-vis populists and anarchists.

What was the Tbilisi heist? A very serious political blunder that left 40 dead, 50 wounded and a massive and persistent rejection of the then young Bolshevik tendency of the Social Democratic party among the Georgian workers. The Menshevik republic of Georgia and its reactionary role during the civil war was then cemented. The robbery-attack imprisoned the development of class consciousness by the Georgian proletariat with more force than ever achieved by tsarist repression.

And Lenin, presented in the book as the action’s godfather? His real stance during the planning stage is unclear. It is possible that he did not initially attach political significance to it and valued it only as a way of raising funds. In any case, we can infer that even if he objected, he did not sufficiently appreciate the importance of what was at stake. That said, he immediately rectified – when the Bolshevik involvement was not yet publicly known – and since then clearly and vehemently rejected any kind of armed partisan activity.

Stalin, on the other hand, suffered a long ostracism among the Bolsheviks on account of that incident which everyone strove to forget. He came from a background of robbery in Georgia and seems to have been the organizer of the plot. He apparently recruited Kamo, an Armenian adventurer with almost no political training who led the action on the ground. Action that ended in slaughter.

Proletkult songbook with lyrics by Pavel Arski (1919).

What about the Proletkult? Actually one need only look at the articles by Lenin, Trotsky and Lunacharsky about this and other groups with similar pretensions to realize that it was just the other way around: the various artistic groups and especially the Proletkult intended to make themselves normative and capture as much as they could the People’s Commissariat led by Lunacharsky with the excuse that they represented the new proletarian art. The Bolsheviks on the other hand rejected the idea of a proletarian culture – and also rejected with equal force what would later be called workers’ identity– and will systematically oppose the merger of the Proletkult or any other school or cultural group with the workers’ councils state. Where Wu Ming paints us the workers’ state devouring cultural expressions and homogenizing them, in reality there were groups of artists and cultural agitators trying to gain power by hijacking a part of the state for their own interests and consecration. Artists seeking public revenue and cultural-political leadership. Nothing more revolting for the Bolshevik revolutionaries. It was logical that they saw Bogdanov as a hopeless case and reproached Lunacharsky for his excessive tolerance.

Regarding Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Lenin’s critique of Bogdanov, many things can be said but certainly not that it was not pertinent or politically relevant. Bogdanov’s empiriomonism is well summarized in the novel.

– See this leaf? Touch it, smell it, hear the noise it makes. You call all these sensations together and organized a leaf.
– “Not only me. We all call it that.
– Exactly. Because in addition to your organization, there is another collective one, which allows us to act together and which we call reality.
– And what does that have to do with Marxism?
– It matters because reality is made of our sensations and the way we put them together. Matter in its pure state does not exist. So if we are Marxists, if we want to change reality, we have to change the sensations and the way we organize them.
– And how is that done?
– By changing people’s heads, that is, the collective consciousness, the culture.

It is obvious that he confuses the representation of reality with reality itself. It is, as Lenin rightly argues, pure idealism. If we think about it a bit we are surrounded by that kind of idealism. Even in science. How many papers and theories confuse the algorithm or mathematical functions describing a system with the alleged internal laws of that system? How many times do we hear things like the billiard player calculating unconsciously complex trigonometric functions before hitting with the cue? How many times are we presented with model simulations performed on a computer as endurance tests not of the model itself but of the reality it supposedly represents?

From this same idealist confusion, which has characterized the way of conceiving the world of all exploiting classes from slavery to the present day, the history of mankind appears to idealists as being the history of ideas over time. The evolution of ideas – be it god as the original idea of the world or ideologies themselves – would be the motor of history. Ideologies replace class interests, culture replaces consciousness; and the more or less violent confrontation of ideas, identities, and ways of understanding the world replaces the class struggle.

In an idealist conception such as the one developed by Bogdanov, ideologies replace class interests, culture replaces consciousness; and the more or less violent confrontation of ideas, identities and ways of understanding the world replaces class struggle.

That is, in this new framework, the way to overcome capitalism would not be the development of workers’ struggles but rather cultural diffusion. Wu Ming in fact takes the historical Bogdanov a little step ahead in order to turn him into an anticipation of Gramsci and his cultural hegemony and even of a Laclau and his creating people.

There is definitely a grain of truth there. While Bogdanov was certainly never the cool academic-turned politician (like Podemos’ politicians) that Wu Ming would wish to find, the idealistic underpinnings of his theory necessarily lead that way. That is, towards the negation of the working class as a political subject. Something which nobody seems to discuss too much about but which is clearly seen in the sequel to Red Star, entitled Engineer Menni (1913). In it, we are told of the communist transformation on Mars that already appears concluded in the first novel. Surprise! This was not a revolutionary transformation, but the product of a reform from above led by an engineer applying common sense to solve the problems of the Martian species. Engineer Menni is the material demonstration that Lenin’s critique in Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1908) was vital for the Bolsheviks. From Bogdanov’s epistemological discourse could only be born an ideology that would undo the party and render it useless in serving the development of working-class consciousness among the workers.

What’s behind all this?

Actually, the real issue today is what Bogdanov’s claim is all about. And for that you have to understand what Wu Ming stands for.

To understand Wu Ming we need to examine the summaries of the collective novels of the group. If we narrow them down to those translated into English, French and Spanish, the framework becomes even clearer. Wu Ming is colonizing art which has taken on the role of bard and cultural preacher of Anglo-Saxon democratic radicalism among Latin-language speakers. But they are not only the rebel child of both Berlusconi and the anglification of the Italian university and corporate petty bourgeoisie. They are also Umberto Eco’s children. Although discreetly, they do not want to stop telling the 1970s collapse of stalinism and its university epigones. Of course, in order to narrate it to the Anglo-Saxon left. Always within the narratives that the latter can recognize and understand as their own. That is to say, they are not only colonizers they are also a kind of colonial art trying to explain the history of the colonized as a particular case, as a concrete application of the ideological structure of the ideological master they envy and aspire to represent in the role of overseer.

This purpose, conscious or unconscious, inevitably leads to tailgating. And in 2018, when the novel was originally published in Italian, Bogdanov was becoming fashionable by the hand of Paul Mason.

Paul Mason, a British ex-Trotskyist-Stalinist who was the Economics editor at The Guardian, does not talk about communism but rather about post-capitalism. It may sound similar, because he describes it as a society of abundance, reclaims quotes from Marx and basks in them using the intuitions of Bogdanov’s novel. But it is not. For Mason, abundance is not the result of the overthrow of capitalism, but of an evolution of the system imposed by placing society on the verge of extinction. Mason sees himself as an engineer Menni of the Green Deal and pushes for a reform outside the class struggle towards a decarbonized economy with elements of what he calls gift economics. Moreover, he reclaims from Bogdanov a -profoundly erroneous- idea extracted from Red Star: in communism social contradictions are overcome, but the contradiction between Humanity and Nature is not.

This is not the time to go into a detailed critique of Mason, but we needed to point it out because his role as propagandist for the Green Deal – a plan that is actually a brutal transfer of rents from labor to capital – shapes the argument from the beginning, beginning with anachronistic conversations about fossil fuels…. in 1927!!!

A disappointing balance sheet

If Wu Ming has not yet managed to outdo its first novel (Q), it is mainly because its way of working rigidly submits the literary scaffolding to the political message it wishes to convey. That makes the novels neither better nor worse. It simply makes their contradictions more evident. And if in the last novels these contradictions and anachronisms have been increasing, in this one -which seems to be a commissioned novel- these contradictions blow the whole thing apart without managing to elevate the rhythm or the dark mood of the narrative. Aliens are not the thing eroding the readers’ suspension of disbelief. It’s the dense tangle of foreshortenings and traps necessary to try to peddle green deal and feminism to us from a false and whiny defeatism. Not even the worst Bogdanov deserved this.

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