Revolution and Military Repression – a question for the left


“Before these latter years, counter-revolution usually depended on the support of reactionary powers which were technically and intellectually inferior to the forces of revolution. This has changed with the advent of fascism. Now, every revolution is likely to meet the attack of the most modem, most efficient, most ruthless machinery yet in existence. It means that the age of revolutions free to evolve according to their own laws is over” Franz Borkenau

“The men of the European Resistance were neither the first nor the last to lose their treasure. The history of revolutions – from the summer of 1776 in Philadelphia and the summer of 1789 in Paris to the autumn of 1956 in Budapest – which politically spells out the innermost story of the modern age, could be told in parable form as the tale of an age-old treasure which, under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again, under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana.” Hannah Arendt

“Every revolution is a throw of the dice”  Straub/Huillet, after Mallarmé

The quotes that preface this article touch on two crucial issues relating to revolution in the modern world. The first, written during the Spanish Revolution, finds its confirmation in many popular revolutions since then. Budapest, Prague, Egypt and, of course, Syria spring immediately to mind. If a regime is wielding enough firepower and has sufficient counter-revolutionary resolve, it can likely annihilate almost any revolt within its territory.

The case of Syria is especially instructive. Even when all the classic signs of a revolutionary situation appeared: open revolt in the cities, towns and villages, the popular masses questioning the established social relations and large swathes of a conscript army going over to the side of the people; with enough outside support and firepower counter-revolution seems the most probable outcome.

The Arendt quote reveals something else about revolution in the modern world. Once the left thought that revolution was almost guaranteed. It was objectively required by the telos of historical progress. The infrastructure of a society outgrew its political forms. These forms would be swept away in order for a new social regime to properly develop. It produced both new freer social relations and, especially, a more productive and rational organisation of the economy. The Third International claimed it was the ‘epoch of socialist revolution’ and expected many successful working class uprisings to capture state power (even as its own bureaucracy came to direct working class politics from above).

The C20 has shattered this, it has shown it to be a myth. Revolutions now appear like Arendt’s treasure – of course, these events arise off the back of suffering, oppression, and exploitation but considering the constancy of these causes, and the rarity of revolution, they cannot be reduced to them.

The entry of the masses into the political sphere is the only possibility of establishing freer more autonomous societies. Like Lefort, we must posit that democracy is an empty space that can foster a diversity of opinions underwritten by broad but firm principles. We should not situate power or truth in a leader, party or ideology. If the old idea of revolution is dead then we should posit another, merely as a contribution to revolutionary theory. Revolution is the opening of a psychological closure, torn open by rage and sickness of fear. It prises open the closure of established social and political relations, works against obedience and conformism. In drawing open this closure new forms of political speech and action are born, new social forms may appear that work toward less hierarchical institutions. Like how an analysand must speak through free association whatever comes to mind, and reflect on the course of her life with a new perspective using the material uncovered, might the process of revolution work in a similar fashion? Any student of the history of revolutions (rather than political activity in service to an ideology) knows the immensely creative and therapeutic effects of revolt can create new worlds. New forms, significations, and modes of being were born in the revolutions of the modern age. Even when they were lost, the meanings and forms they created were transmitted to the world as models and sources.

So the questions those of us who believe in social revolution must ask ourselves – an open question but with a current imperative of the utmost urgency – if revolution is an event irreducible to empirical factors, not guaranteed by a telos but rather a unique potentiality in the endless open page of human history.

What chance does revolution stand in the age of mass aerial bombardment and overwhelming firepower?

As popular revolts in an unconcerned wider world, very little. Syrian revolutionaries have repeatedly called for defensive equipment from aerial bombardment and later a ‘No Fly Zone’. We know that the intervention in Libya allowed the revolutionary forces to overthrow the old regime without the destruction of entire cities and the death or exile of their population. It has given a society recovering from a brutal four-decade dictatorship the chance to develop in the direction of freedom. One does not have to trust the motives of those intervening. Every revolution is a role of the dice, we should listen to those who take the risk. No successful revolution has ever faced mass repression from a militarily and technological advanced enemy. With the fall of the Soviet Empire, the most recent wave of revolutions before the Arab Spring, the ruling classes knew their system was dying, and aside from the party gerontocracy, the cadre of the system saw a brighter future without party badges on their lapels. In a situation where the ruling class is likely to lose their privileges and wealth rather than set their eyes on new ones, the result is likely to be a counter-revolutionary fightback on the Syrian model. If revolutions are histories rare treasure we as revolutionaries should consider solidarity over ideology and listen to those involved, not prioritise our own everyday struggles while they die or preserve the ‘established facts’ of our long-held positions so to be deaf to the treasure of their experience. Moreover, to retain our own humanity solidarity must come first, as any ends are determined by the means employed, if we devalue their lives and deaths we may find ourselves in the situation of many who started out as revolutionaries but ended somewhere quite different, as having a hand in creating a mountain of corpses.

by Joe R.


Rene Girard’s Gospel Truths: On Violence and the Origins of Society



Three hundred years since the Enlightenment began and who would question that violence as an inheritance of humanity’s past appears to be an ineradicable feature of our agonistic age? 1 The realism of antiquity that “man is a wolf to wolf” (Plautus) might not have wholly colonized the consensus omnium but it is finding increasing favour.

The role of violence in civilization’s emergence is a topical question and one thinker who proposed an indissoluble link between violence and the emergence of society, culture and the sacred, was the social theorist, literary critic and philosopher Rene Girard (1923-2015). In recent years Girard’s once unfashionable but ambitious project has attracted growing attention. Indeed rebarbative wars and stalemate civil wars, ethnic cleansing and genocidal conflicts have bloomed like poisonous flowers across the globe in recent years with this age old reality displaying many new sociological features exemplifying globalisation and post-modernism.2 This is a historical moment where the confluence of a variety of forces and events – the continuing fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union, the continued economic turbulence since 2008, the palpable decline of US imperial power after ill-starred adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the eruption of the ‘Arab Spring’ (revolutions of new type that ‘perplex’ the traditional left) and their subsequent faltering in the face of barbarous counter-revolution – have added some plausibility to Girard’s argument.

Stepping back to consider the parabola of pre-history and history, violence was at the centre of the humanity’s hominization in Violence and the Sacred (1972) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978). Surprisingly for a French thinker Girard was never particularly fashionable though his dogged reflection on violence as generative catalyst drew on anthropology, psychoanalysis, archaeology, ethnology, ethology and literature. But a number of factors distinguished Girard from post-war French social theory, primarily the fact Girard was essentially a Christian thinker, a sophisticated defender of the faith who unabashedly utilized science to elaborate the logic of mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism. In a notable 1978 review of Violence and the Sacred (1972), Hayden White assaulted Girard’s supposed desire to roll back the Enlightenment and the disenchantment of the modern age and thus reawaken Judeo-Christian religious consciousness.4

Yet arguably Girard’s posture was more complicated than White’s hostility warranted. Though Girard proposed in THStFotW (1978) that Christianity was able to nullify the scapegoat mechanism 5 with the revelation of the universal truth that all scapegoats were innocent (Jesus: “they hate me without cause”) 6, Girard’s Catholicism was muted by an appeal to the scientificity of his enterprise. Girard later insisted religion, as accumulated wisdom, was itself a form of science that arose as the sacred emerged in the process of hominization, as part of the attempt to comprehend and tame the forces of the natural and social world. Basically Girard’s position reflected acceptance of the modernist critique of scientism but didn’t entail a nihilist or romantic repudiation of science per se. So Girard explicitly affirmed the real beyond the text in contrast to the more excitable proponents of post-modern theory, underlining the distance from the fashionable French social theory that was shaped by the ‘linguistic turn’. Instead Girard’s intellectual formation partly stemmed from older French sociological traditions but also the fact he spent his academic career in the US since 1946.

Below Girard’s distinctive arguments are summarised as they were presented in VatS (1972) and extended in THStFotW (1978). This brief precis is followed by some critical reflection on Girard’s two leitmotif ideas: firstly, mimesis or mimetic desire and how it leads to intractable, destructive conflict and violence (Girard’s sacrificial crisis) and, secondly, how the selective violence of the sacrificial mechanism functions to mortify global violence and in doing so provides the genetic ground of culture.


In VatS (1972) Girard plundered a variety of sources – the Old Testament, Greek and Roman myth, anthropological, ethological and ethnological research, to elucidate the social and historical meaning of human sacrifice, the scapegoat mechanism and the meaning of those temporary, cyclical disturbances of the social world that Girard termed the sacrificial crisis, that was the starting point of his analysis. Yet underpinning the scapegoat mechanism was a phenomenological master concept: mimetic desire (outlined much later) and it is with mimesis or mimetic desire we begin.

Essentially for Girard desire was imitative and a fundamental relation of mimesis dominated social existence. Every individual shared basic needs rooted in a common biological desideratum but beyond the somatic there was also desire. Desire was social and the satisfaction of desire was necessary to achieve plenitude. Desire was more or less intense and its object began as lack, something coveted. Girard dismissed the notion of desire’s great confinement that was a leitmotif of French social theory in the post-war years – the idea that laws and prohibitions combining to bind desire should be thrown off to allow the authentic individual to “blossom forth.” The idea desire was uniquely individual was modernity’s illusion. In reality if desire was a fixed quantity as was often assumed then it would hardly differ from instinct. How did desire take shape? Where did the objects of desire come from? 7 Girard’s stance recalled Freud’s – the repression (husbanding) of desire was a necessity, enabling social life proper.

How did we each know what we wanted? How did we learn desire? It was by the “example of his own desire” that an individual conveyed to others the object’s desirability Girard claimed. 8 Each individual learned what was desirable from the Other but crucially what they internalised was the imitative behaviour (mimesis) of the Other itself. Therefore the desire for a specific object (in Freudian terms the object of desire could be another individual) did not derive from the object per se but from another’s desire for the object. Surprisingly perhaps we coveted sameness and similarity in the specific object and so mimesis and desire were strongly linked, as Girard concluded: “two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash.”9 So a furtive but universal imitation (furtive because every individual in the modern age regarded themselves as an individual) led to sameness/similarity in society but instead of this conformity of desire issuing in harmony as you might at first expect, sameness fed global rivalry, opposed interests and conflict. The ultimate source of these rivalries in the mimetic mechanism was inevitably shrouded in a degree of obscurity because social actors were unable to acquire the lucidity to apprehend the universality of mimesis and its part in the fission of reciprocal antagonism. In Girard’s terms the Other was first of all the Model (in Freudianism the imago – parents, the original imago, were exemplary in this respect though other Models followed), the Model for desire destined to be your rival. A mimetic crisis – the conflict of rivals – was also a crisis of undifferentiation (the attenuation of difference) because rivals were almost identical – doubles in fact. The mimetic mechanism’s power was at its purest among the small bands and groups of pre-history. In contrast modernity distorted the mimetic mechanism. More generally the historical emergence of stratified, hierarchical societies functioned as a partial prophylaxis to mimetic desire because certain objects could not be acquired by the majority of the populace in the context of scarcity. Feudalism demonstrated how scarcity ensured only the most basic needs of the peasant majority could be met, though Rabelais’s literature revelled in a liminal plebeian world of gluttony. 10 Girard did not dispute that scarcity could also promote the class struggle but Marx was accused of scapegoating the bourgeoisie or in Nietzschean terms deemed to be driven by ressentiment.

The other two ‘masters of suspicion’ (as Paul Ricoeur christened them) Nietzsche and Freud were also indicted for embracing the scapegoating logic. Historically class and social stratification implied difference, often quite rigid, and the resulting differentiation of desire attenuated the mimetic mechanism. Mimesis was still operative but functioned crookedly. Modernity saw an “array of models” but social mobility and the attenuation of class and status meant those at ‘lower’ social levels increasingly desired what those at ‘higher’ social levels had. The emergence of the state also saw the instantiation of Law and therefore an end to the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’. Law as transcendent power and authority played a part in curbing mimesis and reciprocal violence. Modernity saw the rise of mass society and the citoyen on the one hand, and an object universe created by modern manufacture, on the other. But the productive fission of the objects of desire available to all, hardly weakened mimetic desire or the potential for mimetic conflict according to Girard. In a critical appraisal that echoed Herbert Marcuse’s refusal of the ‘affluent society’, Girard claimed that the near universal availability of commodities diminished the desirability of these objects. Commodities were desired, purchased but quickly discarded. Consumer society rested on the plunder and consumption of the Earth’s resources in a sacrificial, ecologically-malign zero sum game, to manufacture objects that were increasingly unwanted. The paradox of consumer society was that it simultaneously corrupted its citizens (false wants, hollow desires, useless activities proliferated) but also turned them into “mystics” increasingly able to apprehend that consumption would never satisfy their desires. 11

This critical theme was evidently quite congenial to the spiritual concerns of certain strands of ‘social’ Catholicism.


For Girard mimetic desire led to the threshold of violence. What might be regarded as the dominant, ‘romantic’ view that held desire to be singular and unique to each person, was a prejudice of an individualistic age. Reflection revealed desires varied little across society due to mimesis, and paradoxically, what individuals held in common in the realm of desire was what finally prompted conflict (leaving aside the vicissitudes of mimesis in the context of modernity). The Other became our rival because the Other was firstly a Model, a mirror of mimetic desire where we learned the desirability of the object. As we noted, Girard concluded that your Model qua rival was the cause of your desire and their desire was the mirror of your desire rather than the supposed object of desire itself which was strictly secondary (and thus, strictly speaking, nowhere).

In his reading of Sophocles Oedipus Rex, Girard noted how Tiresias and Creon following in Oedipus’s steps assumed that by acting in good faith as honest arbiters they could avoid becoming embroiled in the social crisis engulfing Thebes and draw its sting. But it was testament to Sophocles’ realism that they were destined to fail. Inevitably individuals as social actors were blind to the interests and injuries of others except their own. 12 Standing outside a conflict made empathy easy but inside a dispute it was always the Other who was responsible for the first blow either by striking first or provoking the blow they received. Girard was insistent that there was no difference between those who struck and those who received the blows. Reprisals would soon be forthcoming as part of the telos of the mimetic mechanism and the deadly rivalries generated. 13 In Oedipus Rex Oedipus kills his father Laius at the crossroads (Oedipus is unaware that Laius is his father). Girard observes that though Thebes as a Greek city state existed in specific historical dimension, that tragedies like those of Sophocles also captured the transition from an archaic to a more rule based social order while Oedipus and Laius still inhabited a “universe of reprisals” where male relationships rested on reciprocal violence and the infinite possibility of reprisal. 14

More generally violence arising from the mimetic mechanism, was part of a diabolical phenomenology of social life, an interminable “plague” that periodically destroyed community. Violence shredded the fabric of social life and even threatened the dissolution of society (as it often had in pre-history) but reciprocal violence arising from the mimetic mechanism also had a genetic function laying the foundations of human culture. Later Girard would acknowledge the other side, the angelic phenomenology of social life that revealed how the mimetic mechanism also functioned as an instrument of cultural transmission. Imitation (nascent mimesis) which the pioneers of child psychology and development like Jean Piaget had failed to fully appreciate, was not simply negative but a crucial to the child’s ‘learning process.’ 15 Without this ‘good’ mimesis there would be “no human mind, no education, no transmission of culture.” 16 Even so Girard continued to elevate violent mimesis as he believed commentators were most likely to deny this reality even when it appeared in symbolic or culturally attenuated forms.

Ritual Sacrifice and the Sacrificial Crisis

Turning to the question of ritual sacrifice is to turn to beginnings. Though the mimetic mechanism was the obvious logical starting point for understanding the long process of hominization and the emergence of culture, Girard himself began by exploring the genesis and significance of ritual sacrifice.

Firstly we are alerted to the double aspect of sacrifice: the sacred and religious on the one hand, and the transgressive on the other. Paradoxically both sides were mutually reinforcing as it was transgressive to kill another human being while killing revealed a debased sacred character at its heart because a prohibition on taking human life was broken. Significantly Girard viewed violence and aggression as universal as it was in the animal kingdom while no “man” resembled another more than when he was angry. The archaeological and anthropological record demonstrated violence was a feature of pre-history. Violence aroused was difficult to appease and could rapidly acquire a devastating destructive power in small pre-state bands. In VatS (1972) Girard appealed to the field of ethology as well as various social scientific disciplines to support an essentially Hobbesian or realist view of aggression as part of humanity’s behavioural repertoire, an adaptive tool rooted in, and surviving beyond our animal past. Like Freud, Girard evinced support for a hydraulic model of aggression as energia flowing from a specific physiological-biological economy where energia accumulated until a certain point when it needed an outlet. Girard approvingly cited Konrad Lorenz, author of On Aggression (1966). Lorenz’s popular work originally appeared in West Germany in 1963 and anticipated similar books about the animal-zoological basis of human behaviour by writers like Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey though Lorenz focused on aggression as an adaptive tool in the behavioural repertoire. 17 As Girard observed in 2008 Lorenz’s ethological research cast some suggestive light on the transition from the animal to the human world, and the appearance of culture and the symbolic realm, by producing evidence of ‘instinctual scapegoating’ in some animals. 18

The mimetic mechanism was fundamental to the long process of hominization. The universality of mimetic desire, the inevitability of conflict tore at the delicate social fabric of emerging human societies. Girard speculated that at some point in pre-history the small bands and groups of early hominids hit on the scapegoat mechanism involving the selective use of violence in ritual sacrifice to cauterize the threat of wider violence afflicting the group. Killing the sacrificial victim was an outlet for the violence the mimetic mechanism generated and prophylaxis for further chronic aggression that could potentially destroy the group given its precarious existence. The scapegoat mechanism eventually evolved into the practice of ritual sacrifice aiding the social integration of the group – a position akin to Durkheim who emphasized precisely this role of ritual in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life and the Totemic System in Australia (1912). The scapegoat mechanism helped to constitute community, culture and the sacred realm of primitive religion. In many ways Girard’s position was similar to Freud’s speculative belief in Totem and Taboo that civilization and culture derived from the murder of the tyrannical Father by the primal horde of brothers who subsequently shared the females thus creating the first prohibitions against incest so laying the basis of religion, law and exogamous social relations (social structure, culture). Girard demurred from much of this speculative argument and believed Freud had recoiled from discovering the mimetic mechanism. Later Girard would explicitly reject Freud’s unlikely ur-scenario though Freud’s genius was acknowledged. Alluding to Darwin’s theory of evolution Girard suggested that over the course of tens of thousands of years there were probably countless ur-scenario’s. Ritual slowly emerged after a long gestation, a process of trial and error – the scapegoat mechanism was part of the natural order (as Konrad Lorenz had suggested from observation of geese and the evidence of instinctual scapegoating) as well as the foundation of culture but many sacrificial crises occurred before it became established. Echoing Darwin only the “fittest” bands and groups would have survived to eventually generate culture and religion.

Girard explored this process via different disciplines, undertaking close readings of a variety of myths and origin narratives. The sacrificial victim as a surrogate was not necessarily human. As Stephen Pinker observed in his work on the civilizational pacification of human aggression, the Israelites boasted their God was superior to the deities of neighbouring tribes because He only demanded the sacrifice of sheep and cattle and not their children. Yet human sacrifice was clearly a part of their recent past as this prohibition from Leviticus 18:21 revealed: “You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God.” 19
Similar to ritual sacrifice of humans, animal sacrifice also emerged as a probably symbolically inferior means of appeasing the violence that threatened the stability of the band, horde or group. Indeed animals were probably regarded as symbolic analogues of human beings. Girard cited the example of the Neur who saw their cattle herds as a mirror of Neur society. Each cow had a name that mirrored a person suggesting to Girard that a substitution was at the heart of Neur animal ritual sacrifice implying it was false to separate animal from human sacrifice. They were not so far apart as some imagined. In fact supposing animals to be legitimate sacrificial objects partook of the sacrificial logic. The main problem of ritual sacrifice was ascertaining why there were victims in the first place. Also though animals were regarded as an analogue of people and sacrificing them was a sacred act, animals were not assimilated to people. The Neur did not sacrifice men for cows.

In pre-history if serviceable or substitute victims such as animals were not available then the “pollutant” of violence might not be contained. This is one possible meaning of the Bible story of Cain and Abel. Cain, a farmer slew his brother Abel, a shepherd. Suggestively as a shepherd Abel was able to occasionally sacrifice the first born sheep, discharging his violent impulses but Cain had no such outlet. 20 Animal sacrifice allowed violence but was also revealed as a screen for deflecting violence that would otherwise be aimed at group or band members. Abel had an outlet but Cain did not – Cain was a murderer. 21

Girard was sharply critical of the ‘standard’ anthropological treatment of ritual sacrifice. Its framework was supposedly inadequate because sacrifice was usually apprehended as a violent mediatory act between a human community and their Deity or Deities, so that the specificity of the sacred ritual was disregarded as ritual sacrifice belonged to the past and could be “relegated to the realm of the imaginary”, an anachronistic curio. The Cambridge Ritualists and Frazier treated ritual sacrifice as related to Cosmology and seasonal change as an analogue to changes in human society. But such a perspective put the cart before the horse as Girard believed the reciprocity of violence ran deeper. Only when people discerned the alternating pattern of order and disorder in society did they make a link to the rhythms of Nature. 22

Mauss, Hubert and Levi-Strauss were all rebuked for viewing ritual and sacrifice through a rationalist lens. 23 Critically focusing on the sacred content of ritual sacrifice exposed a rationalist will to repudiate theology but this materialist critique of primitive ritual and religion unintentionally confirmed the veracity of theological explanations. The violent economy of sacrifice generated misunderstanding from the beginning because its efficacy derived from concealing the underlying social conflicts (mimetic rivalry) that ritual sacrifice as symbolic, sacred act only obliquely addressed. Girard often proposed that violence was a “contagion” or a “plague” – with the reciprocal violence arising from the mimetic mechanism inevitably leading to a periodic sacrificial crisis.

Modern interpretation was influenced by an innocent rationalism that lightmindedly overlooked the import of collective violence. Finding a sacrificial victim who could simultaneously be a receptacle for all the evil “pollutant” and a socially symbolic cure, also entailed a certain level of dissimulation or socially necessary illusion for ritual sacrifice to be fully effective. According to Girard, Mauss and Hubert correctly emphasized the universality of ritual sacrifice but it was not due to diffusion but the global nature of mimesis. 24 Freud’s solution to Oedipus was a brilliant interpretation but ultimately misleading because it was not the libidinal impulse that was being repressed but rather mimetic violence. As Hayden White suggested in his critical reading of Girard’s method, sexuality was not the latent meaning of Oedipus Rex or other Greek myths but part of the “surface of the text”. We might say following White that in Girard’s system “purifying violence” chased out impure violence. 25

How the surrogate victim was selected was a profound problem in itself. Typically the victim of ritual sacrifice was a part of the community – the Same – but might also relatively marginal like a child, adolescent or an older woman – the Other. As we know for Girard, sacrifice of the surrogate victim protected the group, band or village from even deadlier internal violence. It was hardly coincidental that the relatively powerless were selected to forestall the escalating violence that might have taken the form of revenge or blood feud.

The Gospel Truth

Girard’s diabolical phenomenology, mimesis and reciprocal violence were paradoxically the foundation of society, culture and the sacred but Girard was also convinced that civilization’s ultimate viability rested on humanity abandoning violence. In his sequel to VatS (1972), Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), Girard offered a close reading of the sacrificial theme in the Gospels and suggested the Biblical texts shone an unambiguous and powerful light on the sacrificial mechanism. The primary revelation of the Gospels was its proclamation via the crucifixion of Jesus, the Son of God, that all sacrificial victims and scapegoats were innocent. The crucifixion of Jesus was emphatically not part of the dominant sacrificial logic. 26


In the Girardian universe the Gospels were a form of biblical disenchantment exposing the sacrificial character of the prevailing myths and religious systems. In contrast, the God of the Old and New Testament was a God of Love. God was not vengeful and He was not responsible for the mimetic mechanism. The apocalypse was a strictly human dynamic that unfolded from the social logic of mimesis. 27 God had not offered up his Son for sacrifice and the fundamentalist reading of a fire and brimstone God was misplaced, derived from wrongheaded readings, the transmission of error strewn copies of the Gospels and the antiquity of the Old Testament – though even here Girard disputed fundamentalist readings of the Old Testament and insisted we were still dealing with a God of Love. It isn’t necessity to scrutinize Girard’s theological reasoning or examine the plausibility of his reading of the Biblical texts other than to mentally note there is a characteristic, symptomatic Girardian tendency to proceed by informing us how we should read certain disputed passages of texts, Girard will posit what is primary (and secondary) in any ethnographic or anthropological study before giving his own reading with its strategic insertion of the themes of mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism. This procedure of amendment before the Girardian reading can properly be imposed is particularly jarring with Girard’s insistence that there is no real gap between the Old and the New Testament. In any case Girard warns us the Gospels should not be read with medieval eyes or as an allegory of God’s punishment of humanity. This biblical passage quoted by Girard was exemplary in this respect:

“You have that it was said: ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5: 43-45).

Neither were the Gospels implicated in a sacrificial universe except insofar as they directly challenged the sacrificial framework while humanity rather than God, was deemed responsible for the violence and miseries afflicting humanity. In a counterintuitive leap Girard suggested the Gospels provided a “practical atheism” 28 because the God shining forth in the Gospel texts was both a God of love but also significantly a non-interventionist God – He resisted the interference that might implicate Him in mimesis though God did send his Son to Earth to disabuse humanity of the efficacy of sacrificial violence. God was not the sort of deity who walked alongside humanity or dwelled in an ancient tree.

Concluding Remarks

Girard’s ambition to explain the basis of ‘civilization’ matched that of one of his major inspirations, interlocutors and rivals: Freud. Both men alluded to the scientific nature of their respective enterprises though one feature distinguishing Girard’s project was its aim to rehabilitate Christianity. According to Hayden White – citing as evidence Desire, Deceit and the Novel (1962) and Violence and the Sacred (1972) before the full blown Girardian appeals to the anti-sacrificial message of the Gospels of 1978 – Girard was waging a war against modernity as his insistence on the “necessity of religious belief” to ward off social chaos, revealed. White was hostile to the message there could be no society without religion. The arrival of the scientific age meant religion pragmatically required a defence using the weapons of science. According to White, Girard was the inheritor of a strand of French sociological thought preoccupied with reason’s inability to overcome inertial tradition and time honoured social practices. These had revealed the importance of identity and belonging. This may perhaps have been the case – there were parallels with the admired Durkheim for example whose work on ‘primitive’ religion showed how ritual aided social integration. Yet Girard had also happily accepted elements of the modernist critique of rationalism and married it to a quite traditional conception of the scientific enterprise that certainly could not be bracketed with French social theory after the ‘linguistic turn.’

White noticed that Girard in generalising from ethology, ethnology, anthropology, sociology and literary analysis, daringly reversed the usual interpretive modus operandi. For example in the anthropological field, a particular cosmological weltanschauung might usually be regarded as the latent meaning of, say, a ‘primitive’ bands perceptual framework. But in a theoretical move disavowing puritanism Girard would offer a worldly critical reversal of such an interpretive procedure and suggest that these aspects were not repressed at all but part of the manifest content. They were easily read off the social text or social practice because they were there on the surface all the time. It was mimesis and the sacrificial logic that provided the latent content and the hidden drama. In terms of ‘primitive’ society this simply indicated the primacy of ritual (and therefore ultimately religion) over myth. Again here we can see the essential outline of Girard’s overall critique of psychoanalysis which was particularly severe with Freud’s reading of the Oedipus myth. But then Girard wished to create a superior monistic cosmology to surpass that of Freud (and Marx and Nietzsche) – an intriguing echo of Girard’s own theory of Doubles: your Model and ultimately your enemy.

Let us be clear we entirely reject Girard’s “monistic cosmology” as White dubs it. The major weakness of Girard’s master concept of mimesis despite a certain superficial plausibility or localized utility, is its insatiable aspiration to explain everything. Girard’s whole argument is not falsifiable as any modest scientific theory might usually expected to be. In terms of his own specific specialism: critical cultural or literary theory, White argued that Girard’s ‘theoretical imperialism’ had been apparent in his first 1962 book on the modern novel. Modern literary interpretation was too sophisticated to grasp the import of the narrative parabola of, say, Don Quixote’s or Madame Bovary’s life, whose “conversion in death” Girard uncomplicatedly read as parables of the Christian revelation. This fundamental “truth” had been obscured by the “romantic lies” born of the secular sensibility of the modernist critic. In somewhat hyperbolic fashion White offers the jaundiced suggestion that for Girard such obscurantist romanticism was propagated by a humanity drunk on pride.

Leaving the relatively modest field of literary or cultural theory for one moment and the question of how much Girard’s take on the modern novel marked the first occasion for him to audition the theme of mimesis and its generative role in culture and the Christian revelation, it becomes clear that Girard’s fundamentally reductive argument can only have plausible traction if the necessarily diabolical phenomenology is treated as a powerful, omnipresent logic in social life. In other words Girard has to resist any concession that mimesis might only be a “weak” mechanism or simply one local element of social interaction among others or else the sacrificial crisis qua event loses its potency and influence. More importantly it would lose its status as a plausible explanadum of the emergence of culture from the many ur-scenarios Girard speculated must have taken place over thousands of years during pre-history. Girard was the first to concede that many factors blocked or deflected the working of the mimetic mechanism (chiefly social differentiation arising from the advent of civilization) but insisted its sway was more powerful in earlier, smaller, undifferentiated human groups. It is peculiar that such countervailing counterfactuals are not regarded as fatally invalidating mimesis when elsewhere its global nature is so vaunted.

Above we noted in relation to Girard’s characteristic procedure is to propose how the text should be read – why dominant or common readings are erroneous or part of the dissimulation necessary to conceal the latent working of the traumatic logic of the scapegoat mechanism. Thus Girard gathers much secondary material from the field of anthropology and subjects that material to his own interpretive reworking. Hayden White also noted how Girard took the “raw data” of ethnology and anthropology and inserted it into an a priori “interpretative grid”. Of course so far as White was concerned there was no such thing as “raw data” as an object existing externally to mediatory order of language. Thus Girard was reshaping material that had already been shaped. While Girard sharply disagreed with anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss, more serious was his accusation that anthropology had of not taken ritual or myth seriously because the anthropological field is dominated by a secular will to disenchant the sacred spell and a peculiarly modernist blindness to lost ‘truths’ that the ancients or ‘primitives’ understood perfectly well such as the “contagious” or “plague-like” nature of destructive violence (understood perfectly well except when social illusion was functionally necessary to conceal this traumatic truth – characteristically Girard has it both ways). Yet there was and is a great deal more to the field of anthropology than, say, the Cambridge Ritualists or Mauss and Hubert. In fact in no other field of the social sciences has the realm of myth, ritual, the sacred and early religion, been taken so seriously.

One anthropologist who took the subject of the sacred and ritual sacrifice extremely seriously was Victor Turner who died in 1983 (Turner incidentally was a Christian). Turner paid close attention to the particularities of belief in the sacred and ritual practice in during fieldwork in West Africa linking it, for example, to the literary symbolism of Dante or Roman sacrificial practices and underwent an intellectual odyssey that rejected structuralism and Durkheimian functionalism as inadequate in capturing the complex social logic and beliefs of ritual and ritual practice (characteristically Turner was more impressed with Durkheim’s conception of collective “effervescence” originally meant for understanding the French revolution, which stressed the part played by agency in generating new social structures). 29 The work of Turner and others marks a far more serious engagement with the sacred and ritual than Girard’s dismissive, selective balance sheet of the field.

Turner’s concept of communitas reminds us that Girard has failed to satisfactorily account for the genesis of social solidarity among hominids and early man. Naturally it is open to Girardians to claim social solidarity is derivative of mimesis or that social solidarity retains strong elements of coercion directly derived from the internalisation of prohibitions governing group behaviour mediated indirectly by the scapegoat mechanism. Except Girard says remarkably little about social solidarity and ultimately I think this is because the mimetic mechanism cannot satisfactorily explain social solidarity. Mimesis and the sacrificial mechanism it generates supposedly promotes social integration (Durkheim also thought ritual was socially integrative) and yet Girard’s conception is strongly coloured by ethology so the individual in the group is very much a fearful, selfish egoist whose Models are also putative rivals. It’s hard not to conclude the mimetic mechanism is simply too one note to capture the complex tapestry of social life.

Finally the weakest link of the mimetic mechanism which ought to disqualify Girard’s theory from offering an explanation for culture and society, is its basic component: desire. Essentially Girard is absolutely emphatic – desire is derived from mimesis or imitative behaviour. We desire the objects we desire because others desired the same objects. So the key relation of our desire toward an object is mediated by the desire of the Other, the Model and rival. What characterises the objects we desire is not the difference that would affirm individuality but similarity and sameness which exposes the conformity at the heart of the mimetic mechanism and our desire. So we learn desire from our Models – the Model qua rival was the cause of our desire not the object. There is a certain surface plausibility to Girard’s argument – it could be read as a simple insistence that desire is socially mediated which may well be true but is a different to Girard’s position. The mimetic mechanism means that desire cannot proceed from ourselves. By contrast we maintain we can subjectively desire a specific object without the mediatory intercession of the Other as Model and/or rival. The fundamental connection between desire and mimesis was one reason Girard emphatically rejected Freud’s conception of desire (and crucially the libidinal economy underpinning it). Sadly we cannot interrogate Girard’s criticism of Freud’s Oedipus complex which points to the various adjustments Freud made to his theory to render it more coherent but we can address two issues in lieu of that systematic rebuttal of Girard’s interpretation. It was Girard’s judgement that Freud had been close to grasping the logic of mimesis when he explored the Oedipus complex in 1910. But instead of deriving desire from the mimetic triadic structure of the family with the parents conceived as proto-Model’s – essentially Girard’s position, Freud took a different, more ‘materialist’ position. Firstly Freud presented desire (instinct) as a libidinal aim whose ultimate somatic basis was the nervous system and though he emphasized the “source of the instincts” lay in the physiological apparatus Freud also insisted it was strictly outside the scope of “psychology.” 30 The proximity of the child qua child rearing to its mother ensured the child’s libidinal aim (instinct, desire, want) acquired its First Object in its mother. Generally it was inevitable the mother would be the child’s first Love-Object, the dominant object of the child’s infantile libidinal strivings. The child’s libidinal attachment to its mother signalled the unfolding of the Oedipus complex – an important ontogenetic stage in a child’s psychosexual development. This conception was quite different from Girard’s mimetic model of desire – significantly only Freud’s conception of desire could explain that fundamental feature of human sexuality – its polymorphous perversity. 31 It is symptomatic that in one passage dismissing Freud’s Oedipus complex, Girard defends the innocence of the young child trading on the enduring scepticism towards Freud’s acknowledgement of the existence of infantile sexuality or the idea that a young boy might have unconscious murderous wishes towards his father, the rival for his mother’s affections.

Clearly some desires are mimetic originally but it actually stretches plausibility and logic to suggest that all desire is derived from the rivalries generated by the mimetic mechanism. The critic of Girard who suggests there are desires not mediated by a Model, does not mediated by a Model, does not have to be swollen with the sin of pride or narcissism or even the conceit of illusory individualism, to point this out. So desire can genuinely be our own in the sense that it is not mediated by the rival and desire can indicate authentic difference and not simply the illusion of difference. Also in the actually existing social world individuals know many other individuals with different temperaments and personalities so that in Girardian terms any individual would be confronted with a multiplicity of possible Models holding in turn many, many choices and many, many objects or goods of desire. Therefore an individual is still faced with having to make any number of choices, deciding what they want, what their desires are, what they wish to achieve and though those choices are socially mediated to a greater or lesser degree, they are predominantly their choices and their desires. Ultimately the complexity of the human social universe capsizes Girard’s deterministic, reductive mimetic mechanism and if mimesis is a demonstrable aspect of social life it is so in a much more etiolated, weaker form than Girard imagines and thus falls far short of the global explanatory power than was claimed for the concept.

by Jules Etjim




1 Perhaps surprisingly one such dissenter is Stephen Pinker

2  Mary Kaldor captures some of the changes in the nature of war in New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in the Global Era (1999).

3 Girard’s earlier Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1962), organised around the central category of mimesis, marked a straw in the wind of his later more extensive argument.

4 Hayden White’s belated review of Violence and the Sacred (1972, 2012) appeared as Ethnological ‘Lie’ and Mythical ‘Truth’ (1978)Diacritics Vol 8. No.1 Spring 1978, pp. 2-9.

5 Those terms italicized in the text – for example sacrificial mechanism or surrogate victim – are important concepts used by Girard in his work.

6 Girard Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (2017) p.150. Hereafter abbreviated to E&C (2017).

7 Ibid. pp.43-4.

8 Girard VatS (1972, 2012) p.164.

9 Ibid.

10 Intriguingly Girard – whose starting point was European literature and mimesis including Dante, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Dostoevsky and so on – appears to have barely discussed Rabelais.

11 Girard E&C (2017) pp.58-9.

12 For Girard’s reading of Oedipus Rex see VatS (1972, 2012) pp.77-99.

13 Ibid. pp.178-9.

14 Ibid. p.52.

15 Girard in E&C (2008, 2017) p.43.

16  Ibid. p.56.

17 For an account of the reception surrounding Lorenz’s popular work, its context and the relevance of Lorenz’s wartime fascist sympathies in relation to his elaboration of the nature of human aggression, see Dagmar Herzog Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in the Age of Catastrophe (2017) pp.123-50.

18 E&C (2008.2017) p.72

19 Leviticus 18:21 quoted in Stephen Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (2012) p.161.

20 Neither is it is an accident that Cain and Abel were brothers according to Girard’s overall argumentative schema, as they would have been rivalrous doubles.

21 VatS (1972, 2012) pp.4-5.

22 Ibid. pp.107-8.

23 Ibid. p.7.

24 Ibid. p.102.

25 Hayden White Ethnological “Lie” and Mythical “Truth” in Diacritics Vol.8. No.1 Spring 1978 p.4.

26 Girard in THSTFOTW (1978) p.172.

27 Though to talk of “social logic” in relation to Girard’s mimetic mechanism is somewhat paradoxical given that it creates the social in the first place.

28 Ibid. p.174.

29  See Turner’s discussion of Durkheim – the context, exploring agency and social solidarity in contrast to alternative Hobbesian optic of individuals like Konrad Lorenz and Rene Girard – in Victor Turner’s essay Morality and Liminality in Blazing the Trail: Way Marks in the Exploration of Symbols (1992) p.137.

30 “Psychology” was not concerned with the physiological apparatus, the source of the instincts but rather their ideational-symbolic form in the mental apparatus but it did presuppose this material basis. Freud makes this point in his essay Instincts and Their Vicissitudes (1915).

31 Girard discusses Freud’s Oedipus complex in VatS (1972, 2012) pp.191-217.

Georgia, after the Tsars, before the Communists

A review of ‘The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution, 1918-21’ by Eric Lee

Representatives of the Second International with. Georgian Mensheviks. Borjomi, 1920.

Representatives of the Second International with Georgian Mensheviks in Borjomi, 1920.

Eric Lee’s new popular history of the Georgian Democratic Republic (1918-21) has arrived at a opportune time, with the centenary of the Russian Revolution we are presented with an multitude of new titles about the events that sprang from the February Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power, this book – like John Medhurst’s excellent No Less than Mystic – is a useful rejoinder to both those who would try to make excuses for the Imperial states that triggered the bloodbath of the World War, which made revolution almost inevitable, and those that apologise for the Bolsheviks crushing the extraordinary outburst of revolutionary democracy that appeared across the former Russian Empire.

Lee’s study concentrates on the attempts of the Georgian Mensheviks to craft an open, democratic polity in the Caucasus while Britain and Germany battle for resources, White generals try to bring back the old order and Moscow tries to engineer a Red Army coup despite the government’s overwhelming popularity among workers and peasants (the Mensheviks won 75% of the vote in the Constituent Assembly elections in Georgia).

With the collapse of Tsarist power in Georgia mass meetings, a representative legislature (32 out of 102 deputies in the parliament were workers), workers councils and co-operatives operated freely. The right to strike was in the constitution and state boards of labour often arbitrated in favour of workers when trade union demands and state policy were opposed. The head of government could only serve two one year terms and suffrage was extended to all citizens over twenty years of age. At a time when senior Bolsheviks like Trotsky were demanding the militarization of working life and the absolute rule of the state bureaucracy, it’s no wonder that by the end of the Civil War the Mensheviks (before they were repressed out of existence) were making a comeback in many Russian towns. In Georgia, the elections of 1919 returned massive Social Democratic (Menshevik) majorities, with 72% and 82% of urban and rural votes respectively, the Bolsheviks barely managed a tenth of that.

Co-operatives provided cinemas and bookshops for their worker-members, paid sickness absence and had deliberative structures. A civil society based on the democratic principle was being constructed. Even a dogmatic Marxist like Karl Kautsky, who visited the country for three months in 1919, could see that something new and important in the history of the democratic movement was happening:

“The Georgian methods of socialisation are, with all their energy, quite free from over-haste and the danger of reaction. Thanks to the fact that they are based on democracy, they have kept clear of that species of State and Barrack Socialism, which imagines that social production can be introduced by rigid centralisation of the entire productive forces, and their subjection to the dictatorship of a small committee, excluding all self-government

Democracy, and that alone, can provide for the complete liberty and possibilities of development of the workers, individually and as a class.”

Lee takes us back to the turn of the century through the learning curve the Georgian Social Democrats faced when peasant revolt erupted in the Guria province. A conflict over grazing rights lead to an all out rebellion in which the unusually literate peasantry in this region organised mass meetings that left the revolutionary intelligentsia struggling to catch up. Lee posits that these events, which presaged and overlapped with the 1905 revolution across the Russian Empire, taught the Georgian Mensheviks a lesson that they only partly managed to appreciate. Peasants were given party membership and right up to its forced dissolution in 1921 the party was unusually sensitive to rural life. With the election of Noe Zhordania’s government 90% of noble land was confiscated and given to peasant families while the state oversaw forests and waterways. However, even when true co-operatives (as opposed to the later fraudulent Stalinist version) were gaining ground on the basis of private ownership and socialised distribution Georgian Social Democrats never questioned the Marxist schema that agrarian revolution can but be a precursor to liberal democracy and capitalist farming. It was to their great credit that, as Lee notes (surprisingly invoking the long forgotten figure of Karl August Wittfogel), the Georgian Mensheviks were conscious that the nationalisation of the land under state control could lead to a massive bureaucratic serfdom that indeed came to pass in the Soviet Union, they sought to avoid that very thing by making sure the land belonged to the people that tilled it, not to the state.



Lee is also rightly critical in errors in Nationalities policy of the new government. While freedom of religion was assured and Georgia’s Jews gained emancipation, the territorial integrity of the new Georgian state counted for more than communal autonomy. The repressive measures taken against Ossetian and Armenian separatists was a serious failure.

Nevertheless the portrait painted is of a society whose members that had a very strong identification with collective project of radical change, whose priests toasted socialism and whose peasants and workers were committed to the democratic collective. When leaders of the Second International visited the country, Camille Huysmans suggested that they negotiate a trade agreement where the European workers movement bought the surplus agricultural produce of Georgian co-operatives to develop international solidarity. The Georgian Social Democrat’s lost ideal of international socialism had nothing to do with the millenarian ideology and police terror in Georgia’s northern neighbour.

When, under the bogus pretext of supporting a local rebellion, the Russians marched into Georgia in February 1921 local forces did at least manage to put up a decent fight but they were no match for the 40,000 soldiers of the 11th and 9th divisions of the Red Army. Over the course of a month Moscow’s commanders took Tbilisi and drove the government to Batumi on the Black Sea. The final session of the Constituent Assembly of the Georgian Democratic Republic asked Zhordania’s government to continue its work against the annexation in exile but, with the indifference of the international community, they couldn’t alter the facts on the ground.

It does seem Lenin and Trotsky were misled by Stalin and his close ally Sergo Ordzhonikidze about the nature of the invasion; nevertheless they were no friends of Georgian sovereignty. Trotsky went on to pen a highly dishonest account of the invasion in defence of his then comrades. While Lenin, who was furious at being lied to and was soon to be incapacitated, had previously shown no regard for his government crushing national aspirations in the North Caucasus and Azerbaijan. The regime Stalin installed was a facsimile of the system in Russia, the trade unions and co-operatives became appendages of the state and the Cheka became the real power in the country. A real rebellion, against Soviet rule, was savagely crushed by new Cheka head Lavrentiy Beria in 1924.

While exemplifying the fate of small countries dominated by great powers and agrarian economies in the face of a rapacious world system, the Georgian Revolution’s main lesson is the contrast between the Georgian Social Democracy and Bolshevik ideology. While they shared much of the same determinist schema, their attitude to people was entirely different. Capitalism inevitably treats people like objects, reducing them to cogs in a great machine but the Bolsheviks raised this idea to truly absurd levels. Perhaps only the slave society of the deep American South took it further, while the mass Gulags of the Stalinist era found their genesis in such an attitude. Georgian Social Democracy never wished to abolish the division between state and society or to confuse power with truth, two tendencies of totalitarian societies. Lee’s study is a contribution to a renewed recognition of the goals and achievements of the first Georgian Republic and its tragically suppressed but pioneering attempt to create a truly democratic society.

Land of Closure? Religion. Geography and closed forms of thought in the Russian Imaginary



Pyotr Ossovsky ‘Moscow Kremlin at night’ (1979).

“A natural dionysism and a Christian asceticism are equally characteristic of the Russian people. A difficult problem presents itself ceaselessly to the Russian—the problem of organizing his vast territory. The immensity of Russia, the absence of boundaries, was expressed in the structure of the Russian soul. The Landscape of the Russian soul corresponds with the landscape of Russia, the same boundlessness, formlessness, reaching out into infinity, breadth”. Nicolai Berdyaev, The Origin of Russian Communism


Preliminary Remarks

In the West, Russia stands for alterity. An idea of a place of endless grasslands and forests, of mountain ranges and rivers that run from banks arctic to verdant. Also a land of cruelty and cynicism – the land of the great lie as Ante Ciliga called it. Of men in prison and men imprisoned in rituals of faith. A world itself, enclosed and barricaded. This boundlessness is closed because of the lack of differentiation and the paucity of the intersubjective aspect. In thinking and writing about Russia an outsider may lean on and be seduced this alterity and deceived by its mythologies. Nonetheless it seems necessary to note that this imaginary Russia is part of the Russian imaginary, the combined significations and endless referrals of circulating meanings that make a society and create its unique iteration of reality. This is the Great Russian imaginary. One always views the world from somewhere, through a socially instituted vision that is reality for the subject. This is as true for the New Atheist as it is for the Russian village shopkeeper.

My interest in the subject is prompted by this Russian imaginary and its sharp contrast, as otherness, to the culture of Western Europe and North America. This essay concerns the distant Russian past, its influence in the C20th and how its otherness casts a shadow on the contemporary world. If I don’t address parts of Russian culture and history that appear distant from the closed, heteronomous and traditional Russia it is because reality has many domains and an essay, like any individual, can only be a fragment of it.

I From Muscovy to Communism

For many Russian’s, the early many modern period was marked by the development of what is now considered its most obvious political aspect: a centralized state dominating all other actors in a vast, expanding territory. While the Western European city gave rise to a heterogeneous social field shaped by political, economic and religious struggles that eventually dissolved the foundations of the social order of the Middle Ages, in Russia the state successfully outlawed the urban assemblies of Kievan Rus while monopolising and fostering a captive foreign trade whilst also closely following the trail blazed by the Cossacks colonization of lands in the south and east.

Statism and autocracy was the rule, blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church that added the Tsar to its Icons. The Josephite tendency in the Orthodox Church favoured a Byzantine model and asked Ivan III to become a kind of Caeseropapist ruler. Ivan had some sympathy with the mystic hermit tradition of the Orthodox Church, which renounced worldly things and state power in favour of the transformation of the inner self through benediction and prayer. Even so the Josephite vision of social Christianity for people and state was too attractive for the man who would be Tsar. When his grandson Ivan IV crushed the Boyars, his Oprichnina was styled as a monastic order founded in the countryside near Moscow – a theological-political order with the Tsar as Abbot.

Genealogy of the state of Muscovy (Panegyric to the Virgin of Vladimirsk) by Simon Ushakov. (1668)

Simon Ushakov, Genealogy of the state of Muscovy (Panegyric to the Virgin of Vladimirsk) (1668).

In the nineteenth century the central question for Russia’s small and marginal intelligentsia generally captivated by Germany, was whether their society was a western or eastern society. Eventually for many the telos of Marxism provided the answer to this question, in the sense that a Western Europe defined by industrial capitalism, was in the vanguard of an inevitable planetary transformation. Today with the return of much of the symbolism of a pre-Soviet historical past in the post-Soviet present and the continuity of autocratic, authoritarian government, the question of the particular unique significations of Russian society, of who the Russians are to Russians themselves and how the idea of closure informs this reflection, seem to possess a special relevance.

A general feature of Russian society that had long been evident was a particular Russian heteronomy that is deeply intertwined with the Christianity of the Russian Orthodox church, marked by political quietism, mysticism and passive intellectualism. The religious philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev who had spent his youth in the Russian socialist movement and lived in Communist Russia until his deportation on the famous philosophers’ ship, believed the connection between Orthodoxy, autocracy and closure, profoundly influenced the revolution.

The twin impulses of modernity in the West, of rationalization and maximalization on the one hand, and the project of individual liberty and collective rights on the other, barely touched Russia until late in the nineteenth century. While Europe was transformed by an ideology declaiming the ceaseless expansion of material outputs, a draconian Russian state often neglected to put to work the rebels it dumped in its vast wilderness to fend for themselves. The official discourse presented a holistic society and a people at one with the Tsar. In contrast revolutionary ideology presented a stupefied but noble peasantry whose suffering under absolutist tyranny would finally lead to the yoke being thrown off and claiming of the land. A boundless, vast steppe littered by Stations of the Cross, fortresses, holy fools, church domes, formed the real and symbolic staging of the social realm.

The apparent terminus of this world in the revolutionary explosions of 1905 and 1917-19, was the result of a peculiar westernization – the militant class struggle of the working class of the cities mixed with a vision of an eschatological, global revolution that was predicated on a very Russian Orthodox idea of the suffering people as vassals abandoned in a cruel world finally being redeemed. Johann Arnason surmised the emergence of Russian Marxism and Bolshevism in particular, as a mixture of these influences:

“As the Russian state became more deeply involved in the global state system and its conflicts, a similar internationalization of the frame of reference took place within the Russian revolutionary movement. But on the whole, the results did not go beyond the projection of Russian perspectives onto the international arena and the translation of Russian models into a more universal language. The Russian revolutionary tradition had developed in the wake of Westernizing revolution from above, and the pioneers of its Marxist phase saw themselves as radical Westernizers, but the underlying significance of Marxist orthodoxy turned out to be the very opposite: it helped to consolidate the independence and hegemonic aspirations of a revolutionary movement which had now become capable of subordinating its original sources of inspiration to its own strategic principles. Lenin’s belief in the ‘actuality of the revolution’ should as suggested above, be interpreted from this point of view: the appropriation of Marxist categories enabled him to rationalize the Russian vision of imminent revolution. The same applies to the notion of the revolutionary vanguard; in What Is To Be Done?, Lenin claims international relevance and a universal-historical mission for a specifically Russian variant of Jacobinism. Lenin’s ideological experiments during the world war can be seen as a further step in this direction. His ‘theory’ of imperialism was an unorganized mixture of unoriginal ideas, but it served a strategic purpose in that it helped to link the revolutionary perspective to a visible rather than an expected crisis.”1

Nicolai Berdyaev, who faced down Felix Dzerzhinsky himself to assert his freedom of thought according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had an unusual answer to a question that has stood at the crux of C20th history. Why did the theory of proletarian revolution triumph in a country that was, by any conventional reading, so apparently ill-suited to Marxist doctrine? Even if we take Berdyaev’s answer as partial, the suggestion that Marxism, or at least a particular side of it, was attractive to Russian thinking and further, that Marxism covertly masked a continuity with traditional forms of thought while ostensibly repudiating their content (traditional forms that could not be resuscitated), is a compelling question when one considers the return to national-imperial ideology after revolutionary energies ebbed.

“Totalitarianism, the demand for wholeness of faith as the basis of the kingdom, fits in with the deep religious and social instincts of the people. The Soviet communist realm has in its spiritual structure a great likeness to the Muscovite Orthodox Tsardom. The same feeling of suffocation is in it. The nineteenth century in Russia was not an integrated whole; it was divided up; it was the century of free enquiry and revolution. The revolution created a totalitarian communist realm in which the free spirit was stifled, free enquiry disappeared. In it the experiment is being made of subjecting the whole people to a political catechism”2

The Socialist Revolutionary Party (for all their renowned love of the peasant), and the Mensheviks (for all their stagiest dogmatist), considered their projects ongoing and provisional, open to revision. Both parties were aware of the terrible toll demagoguery might inflict on politics. In short they shared a belief that the class struggle was not a zero sum game and that actual means would be far more influential whatever the original subjective intention.

Lenin’s insistence that there was only one correct ‘line’ on any question, this line being not only being politically judicious but uncomplicatedly reflecting the ‘objective interest’ of the working class as a whole (as determined by Lenin) discovered though a dialectical analysis that damned contrary positions as reflecting alien class influences, was essentially theological. One could apparently determine a correct position through a series of analytical and conceptual categories that collectively constituted Marxism. Debate, deliberation and inter-subjectivity were ultimately a distraction from the grand tectonic movement of social classes in history whose telos was a visible, known goal. Berdyaev saw something of the Russian past in Bolshevik certitude:

“[Lenin] combined in himself two traditions: the tradition of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia in its most maximalist tendency, and the tradition of Russian government in its most despotic aspect. The social democrat Mensheviks and the socialist revolutionaries remained in the stream of the first tradition only, and that in a mitigated form. But combining in himself traditions which in the nineteenth century had been in mortal conflict, Lenin was able to fashion a scheme for the organization of a communist state and to realize it. However paradoxical it may sound, still Bolshevism is the third appearance of Russian autocratic imperialism; its first appearance being the Muscovite Tsardom and its second the Petrine Empire. Bolshevism stands for the strong centralized state. A union was achieved of the will to social justice and the will to political power, and the second will was the stronger. Bolshevism entered into Russian life as a power which was militarized in the highest degree”3

For Lenin, the working class like the peasantry for the Narodniks, was an emotional image that however sincere ones attachment, functioned predominantly as a cultural source, an energia to draw from and animate a lifeless, pre-determined philosophy of history. For the masses crashing the historical stage, first in revolution and later in the ceaseless mobilization of labour resources the Soviet bureaucracy had to rely on to overcome backwardness, an:

“…integrated doctrine was needed, a consistent general outlook, and symbols which held the State together were required. In the Muscovite Tsardom and in the Empire the people were held together by a unity of religious faith; so also a new single faith had to be expressed for masses in elementary symbols. Marxism in its Russian form was wholly suitable for this”4

Bolshevism’s basic doctrine was that if one eliminated the bourgeoisie and simple economic exploitation entailed by the private capitalist factory system, a different anthropological type might be born if given the correct ideological training. Changes in the economic ‘base’ would give rise to their equivalent in broader social relations.

“[Lenin] believed that a compulsory a compulsory social organization could create any sort of new man you like, for instance, a completely social man who would no longer need to use force. Marx believed the same thing, that the new could be manufactured in factories”5

Berdyaev suggests Bolshevism was a rationalization of the irrational and if we regard the irrational as a psychical otherness that is other than what is posited as rational and right in the dominant imaginary, then Berdyaev’s suggestion might be a justifiable proposition. The Russian tradition of redemptive revolution was also an otherness positing a just world. As Arnason noted this utopian otherness marked all the revolutionary tendencies in Russia.

“The peasants considered that the land was God’s; in other words, it belonged to no human being. The peasants always considered the acquisition of the land by the gentry an injustice, as they did serfdom. The communal collective ownership of land was much more to the mind of the Russian people and especially to the Great Russians, thanks to the existence of the commune”6

Looking to the massive horizon the peasant desired to be at one with the land without landlords or officials. This was a desire for the just and a will to unification. The beauty of the land was intrinsically related to feelings of wholeness, oneness and return. Its affect reawakened the primary feelings of in-utero perfection defined by the lack of want and the symbiosis of mother and child before differentiation. Authority in the figure of the Father-Lord, was banished or murdered. If this represents a positive aspect to this desire, the negative aspects relate to the desire to recapitulate natality by recapturing this oneness. This tone feeling decisively influenced the Russian revolutionary tradition, even though committed ‘Westernizers’ like Lenin and Trotsky barely registered it.

As Joel Whitebook explained, the original psychical situation, or what Freud called ‘primary narcissism’, is:

“…a plenum-like experience of unity, fullness and perfection and a denial of externality, otherness and privation. And once the original experience of unity has been broken, individuals strive to recapture it, in one or another, throughout their lives”7

Janine Chausseguet-Smirgel observed that in totalitarian politics, the Leader is a figure of identification, investment and unification; of closure and engulfment that smothers difference. Chausseguet-Smirgel related this identification to an ever present global desire to return to the pre-oedipal state of undifferentiation and symbiosis with the Mother, that Loewald suggested was a tacit understanding derived from the ‘unofficial’ Freud.8 If Russia simply experienced one authoritarian system replacing another authoritarian system with the Party-Leader displacing Church-Tsar as ‘primal mother’, then the change of signifiers did not mean a change in the essential material, phenomena or content. It was surely no accident that the theotokos (iconic representation of Madonna and child) as the emblematic image of Russian art, was replaced by the Party leader’s photograph or socialist realist portrait, as the most common image circulating in Russian society?

“Lenin could not realize his plan of revolution and the seizure of power without a change in the soul of people. This change was so great that the people who had lived by irrational beliefs and had been submissive to an irrational fate suddenly went almost mad about the rationalisation of the whole of life without exception. They believed in a machine instead of in God. The Russian people having emerged from the period of being rooted in the soil, and living under its mystic domination, entered upon a technical period in which it believed in the almighty power of the machine, and by the force of ancient instinct began to treat the machine like a totem”.9

The collapse of the old order left a psychical space that needed to be filled. If we follow Castoriadis in viewing historical change as the emergence of otherness as the older imaginary foundations of society begin to lose their power to satisfy while this novel otherness needs to be socially instituted with significations in order to found a new social order, it follows that we can speculate that Marxist ideology was the functional equivalent of a religion for the new Soviet man. The otherness, worked through in revolution, will, in a heteronomous society, become a whole itself, a weltanschauung, a total vision of the world.

The militant Russian working class in the pre-revolutionary period was strongly attached to the land – as the grandsons, sons, granddaughters and daughters of serfs (serfdom was formally abolished in 1861) but also Social Democratic ideology, the latter more powerful than just a political conviction. The famous ‘Lenin levy’ instituted after Lenin’s death in January 1924, saw a massive influx of former peasants and workers into the Communist Party, who were innocent of the relatively democratic traditions of pre-war Russian Social Democracy which at least tempered the totalitarian element. A wish for social advancement and the new religion of socialist man were in no way exclusive. Equally a belief that the science of modern industry powered the rising People’s State while underwriting the movement of history toward Communism, was central to the new Soviet state religion.


If Orthodoxy could no longer supply the necessary logos for the Westernizing intelligentsia of the C19th, the subterranean longing for the original psychic situation still required sublimation. In Marxism’s claims to totality we see a new iteration of this desire raised to the status of scientific theory. It fulfilled certain requirements for both revolutionary intellectuals and militant workers in that it was a total theory, a theory of the utopia that lay ahead that was a cartography and explanation of the massive, often disastrous social changes occurring in industrializing societies that also provided consolation by positing that, all its evils aside, capitalism was laying the ground for an emancipated society that would abolish social division. As Castoriadis noted, “whether it is the philosopher or the scientist the final dominant intention to find across difference and otherness, manifestations of the same…a primary unity.”10 Similarly Chaussguet-Smirgel suggests to that to purse this unity in the social and political realm can lead to a drive to omnipotence. This perspective views crushing everything via political violence that stands outside the schema of sameness, as part of the project of recapturing oneness so evident as a goal of totalitarian movements and justifying hatred of all those considered other.


Bolshevik instrumentalism leaned on this dynamic for support. If one side of life in an underground party was Oedipal with members as symbolic Fathers to the broader masses, drawing the latter away from the phantasms of religion and inchoate politics (childhood) into the Marxist reality of the world (maturity), then Leninism’s totalitarian side ultimately represented not a movement to autonomy but a reflexive heteronomy based on a schematic closed worldview. The early resort to ostensibly political iconography, propaganda or revolutionary pedagogy and repression of rival socialist parties and anarchists in the course of 1918, clearly illustrates the primal mother-omnipotence principle at work. This informed the belief that only a Leninist [Bolshevik] has the ‘correct’ line on anything that mattered. This incipient Stalinism – the leadership principle, secret police, party cadre and bureaucratic functionaries – was the omnipotent principle run riot, a state that controlled not only its people but history and ultimately reality itself.

For Western radicals looking east and supporting Stalinism, and who could not fully identify with their own societies for quite comprehensible reasons, there existed an Otherness in the world that had a name and a home, and this was enough for these radicals to disregard the inconvenient facts that everybody should now know.

II The Eurasianist Imaginary

Berdyeav’s argument, despite being the work of a Christian existentialist skeptical of all authority, has some affinities with the thought of a group of Russian émigrés associated with a strand of Russian nationalism of an orientalist hue. One, curiously, happened to be a founding father of structuralism: Nikolai Trubetzkoy. Trubetzkoy, P.N. Savitsky, G.V. Vernadsky and G.V. Floravsky inaugurated Eurasianist theory with their collection of essays Exodus to the East. Trubetzhoy’s book The Legacy of Genghis Khan is their most succinct historical statement.

Eurasianism is a branch of thought related to Slavophile anti-modernists like Konstantin Leontiev and Nikolai Danilevsky. The historian Vernadsky taught with Trubetzskoy at the Russian School in Prague. In Vernadsky’s monumental, highly readable History of Russia, he made a very straight case for the Eurasian doctrine, contending that the development of Russian civilization was fundamentally influenced by Mongol rule. The principalities of Kievan Rus were based on princely rule with a popular and direct democratic element. The Veche – a popular assembly of the adult male citizens in provincial capitals – could hold princely power to account and elect officials. In Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal, the Veche wielded substantial power though less so in the aristocrat dominated Galicia and Volynia.

Vernadsky believed that Mongol conquest and rule wiped out this part of the Russian experience. The autocratic principle that Vernadsky essentially saw as a positive aspect of Russian culture, was a particular fusion of Slavic, Byzantine and Mongol elements:

“What was of considerable importance was that the people were trained by the Mongols to take orders, to pay taxes, and to supply soldiers without delay. They continued to perform the same duties for their own grand duke, who became their leader in the national struggle against the Mongols. This change in attitude gradually resulted in a new concept of state and society. The old free political institutions were replaced by an authority of the grand duke. The free society was gradually transformed into a network of social classes bound to state service. The new order took definite shape in the post-Mongol period but its beginnings are to be found in the changes introduced into Russia by the Mongols as a result of their rule”.11


It should be noted that the life of nomads forms an inherent unity in contrast to large settled societies where different elites (aristocratic, military and so on), trades and social classes existed, negating an organic whole and necessitating the Veche. Traditionally the nomadic ger (yurt) is decorated as cosmos with areas representing earth, sky, sun and other elements. The ideal of the organic unity of society (or the world) was immensely attractive and a persistent feature of Russian thought.

The discredited notion of ‘oriental despotism’ has long been considered anachronistic, an orientalist belief based on the idea that all non-Western societies were closed, hierarchical tyrannies. However, the Eurasianists – monarchist and authoritarian in their politics – utilised this notion in an odd manner. For them Russia – neither East nor West but an original fusion of the two – was profoundly influenced by the Mongol occupation. This unique Russian vision of the world alloyed with a base Mongol vision  – in which the stultifying suffering of a strict, impoverished and heteronomous social order perversely enriched the soul’s inner life – was played out on the great steppe and in the endless forests and in isolated communities scattered in boundless space, below endless sky. The ceaseless desire for expansion by conquest was also a method to render the Other (those different people encountered across the plain) the same, to make them ‘them’ and force ‘them’ to submit to ‘us’ (or become ’us’) or destroy ‘them.’ This impulse was integrated into the emerging Russian worldview.

Increasingly, the many affinities of the Russian worldview with primary narcissism become clear.

The arctic, forest, steppe and desert ran horizontally across the Eurasian landmass atop of each other – as one realm that couldn’t be artificially separated into Europe and Asia. Geography played an important role in Eurasian theory – polycentrism was an accepted fact of the Eurasian landmass which added up to a broader civilization. While the differences between peoples were evident, their relation to the broader landmass had fused them into a differentiated unity and while some lived on the Steppe and others lived on the rivers, they could be identified in a broader cultural complex.

The original context of Eurasianist thinking was the early C20th debates around the centrality of European models to the project of modernity. The Eurasianists denied that European culture represented the future of the world. Trubetzkoy posited a multilinear world history where different cultures unfurled their own potentialities. So Eurasia stood for an ascetic and fixed collective identity, heteronomously given by ancestors. The vaunted ‘individualism’ of Western Europe was egotism and was bound to lead to the dissolution of national culture. For Trubetzkoy, Peter the Great’s westernizing reforms were the start of Russia’s downfall. The modern enemy was, of course, cosmopolitanism and European chauvinism alike which could only dilute and destroy the intrinsic qualities of other cultures whether by integration, economic transformation or imperialism. He saw the Communist revolution as yet another Western model likely to both fail in Russian conditions but also fundamentally distort Eurasian society.

Lev Gumilev, a highly influential thinker in post-Soviet Russia, gave these Eurasianist ideas a scientistic, behaviourist and more overtly racist complexion. Gumilev was profoundly shaped by Eurasianism and the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ biological and behaviourist theory that found official favour in the USSR from the 1920s onwards. Gumilev was the only son of two famous late-Tsarist era poets (his father was executed by the Cheka in 1921) and suffered three spells in the Gulag including the notorious Norilsk camp in the Arctic north because of his bourgeois, anti-Soviet origins. After the Khrushchev thaw he very slowly managed to gain positions in the Soviet academy. But it was only as an elderly man in poor health in the 1990s that Gumilev was finally feted as an important Russian scholar (Gumilev died in 1992).

Gumilev, a notorious anti-semite, thought that Ethnoses – essentially ethnic-cultural groups – were structured to behave in certain ways according to new behavioural models strongly influenced by terrain and bio-chemical processes, created by the acts of unique individuals or groups of individuals who Gumilev called passionaries. Gumilev’s pseudo-scientific idea held that civilizational complexes formed a biological-behavioural phenomena (though these were not determinate or teleological) created by specific large scale laws of history which human societies were subject to. Thus Ethnoses rose, went through periods of great innovation before they finally settled into cultural stasis. Gumilev presented a cyclical philosophy of history of a type familiar from Oswald Spengler but what would be another pseudo theory is regarded seriously as Gumilev is feted in Russia and Central Asia today.

Like Trubetzkoy, Gumilev justified closed, authoritarian society on the basis of culture, particularly the Asiatic strand of Russian culture. It is little wonder that L.N. Gumilev Eurasian National University is located opposite the Presidential palace in Astana. While Putin, Nazarbayev and other authoritarians may believe it, there is nothing intrinsically European about an open, cosmopolitan attitude to the world. The Eurasianist’s imaginary – as a curious reaction to modernity – has had a profound influence in post-Communist Eurasia.

III Post-Soviet Traditionalism, Civilizational Orthodoxy and Fascism

Originally the post-Soviet oligarchy wanted a partnership with the Western powers contrary to realist geopolitical claims but accession to NATO among former Soviet dominated European countries and the ongoing imperial ambitions of the Russian state, made this impossible. The deep anger against the disaster provoked by the headlong rush to embrace free market capitalism which impoverished the masses while astronomically enriching a tiny unsavoury elite, eventually drew a response from the statist wing of the ruling class especially when less connected oligarchs started meddling in politics. During Putin’s second Presidential term a civilizational narrative was becoming prevalent as the power-holders became increasingly interested in promulgating ideas drawn from classical sources of Russian exceptionalism. Thus the old currency of the Orthodox world became the general currency.

The apex of Russian state power remained in the hands of former members of the Soviet security apparatus and people who had cut their teeth in the rough and tumble of 1990s Petersburg (sometimes known as the Petersburg lawyers group). Vladimir Putin, a KGB officer who had made in his name in the local administration of Russia’s former imperial capital, is perhaps the only person who can legitimately thought of as part of both groups.

As a bastion of anti-liberal opinion, the Church was a key ally. Mikhail Maslovskiy and Nikita Shangin wrote that:

“The church supports the idea of a strong centralized Russian state. More liberal periods of twentieth-century Russian history are treated negatively by the church hierarchs. Thus perestroika and the first half of the 1990s are associated in their eyes, not with the revival of the church, but the moral decline and the spread of ‘sects’. On the other hand, there is a nostalgia for the more authoritarian periods. Thus the Brezhnev era is seen as stable and quite attractive and there are hopes for Putin as a leader with a ‘strong hand’.”12

Though those professing a deep attachment to religious faith remain a minority, Orthodoxy is widely regarded as part and parcel of the Russian world. The world of closure that is Orthodox theology and the church hierarchy, is a symbolic referent for Russia itself – Russia and Orthodoxy on a symbolic level constituting a unity, indivisible and without remainder.

Again Maslovskiy and Shangin, drawing on the work of sociologist Alexander Verkhovsky, note that:

“State-controlled media creates the image of the Orthodox Church that corresponds to the interests of the regime. In the media the church is presented as supporting all kinds of state policies. The Orthodox Church does not support treating the Russian Federation as a nation-state. The church is not ready to confine itself in the state boundaries since the ‘Holy Russia’ includes also Belarus and Ukraine. The ‘canonical territory’ of the Russian Orthodox Church ‘roughly corresponds to the territory of the former empire’ and thus the church is ‘the last really existing structure that has been preserved on the imperial scale after the disintegration of the USSR’”13

In the rationalizing ideologies of modernity one might be tempted to consider this Russian imaginary as a purely ruling class ideology, a mere screen for the interests of the Russian establishment. As we have noted the state did indeed ally with the Church to bolster the foundations of its rule after the strategic alliance with the West failed. But again we should be clear that imaginaries are not ideologies. Rather, an imaginary is functionally necessary for society. Also rationalising ideologies are imaginaries themselves even if their adherents do not consider them as such.

In his geopolitical theory, the Russian fascist Alexander Dugin has offered a historically dubious but conceptually strong civilizational, geopolitical defence of Putin’s securocratic government, especially its expansionist policies. Dugin’s neo-Eurasianist ideology represents a hodge-podge of Eurasianism, post-war European fascist thought and traditional Great Russian imperialism.

If Russia, as so many have claimed, is a unique cultural entity then it is not surprising that its foreign or geopolitical policy, seeks to preserve itself in a rapacious world system. Also, if as is the view of this author, Russia is a weaker imperialist state ruled by an utterly cynical police-oligarchy compact, then cynical, authoritarian rule does not preclude being invested in this ideology. Freud noted long ago that it is perfectly possible for two contradictory thoughts to occupy the same space. Reflexive heteronomy and cynical instrumentalism in relation to passionately held ideas and beliefs are hardly uncommon in history.

A multi-polar world constituted by different civilizational entities is the world favoured by Dugin – at least until the Russian imperial state is strong enough to go beyond reclaiming its ‘lost’ territories. Essentially Dugin’s worldview is a radical right wing version of the ‘anti-globalisation’ narrative while his propaganda tracts take aim at the ‘globalists’ by which he means both free market capitalism and cultural cosmopolitanism. When Marine Le Pen declared that this century would be a battle between ‘Patriots and Globalists’, this cri de coeur of C21st fascism was pure Dugin.

At Hugo Chavez’s funeral Putin’s close ally Igor Sechin described the deceased president as the founder of the multi-polar world. The Russian oligarchy was posing as ‘anti-imperialist’ and extending that sobriquet to similar second order powers, particularly a cohort of tyrant-oligarchs whose ‘anti-imperialism’ insulated them against popular domestic challenges to their rule in the name of the rights of nations and sovereignty. Bashar al-Assad at least was paying attention. Neo-Eurasianism and Putinism had joined hands on the national and the international (or geopolitical) level.

Unsurprisingly Dugin believes Putin saved Russian civilization from Gorbachev’s betrayal and Yeltin’s ruinous delirium and since the war with Georgia in 2008 successfully reasserted Russia’s imperial and traditional foundations as a political entity. For Dugin the Western countries represent thassalocracy: the civilization of the sea, standing for mercantilism, cosmopolitanism, individualism and a trajectory of asymptotic historical progress. The global image of the Western countries is one of fluidity, change and the promise of free will with all its tragic and bathetic potentialities.

Dugin derived the binaries of thassalocracy and tellurocracy from an obscure British academic Halford Mackinder who in a 1904 lecture to the Royal Geographical Society argued that Britain’s main strategic opponent was Russia rather than Germany. Essentially Mackinder invented geopolitics by predicting that the enduring strategic, geopolitical rivalry would prove to be that between Britain and the United States with their naval power on the one hand, and Russia with its vast steppes and spaces, on the other. For Russia the first goal of geopolitics was control of the Eurasian ‘heartland.’ After the Second World War, the US took over the role as the centre of world thassalocracy. As a civilization of sea, the US had enormous strength being a continental power protected by two world oceans. Dugin also borrowed from Carl Schmitt’s small book Land and Sea (1954),  on the consolidation of the modern state system. Schmitt presented the binary of the land and sea as antipodal: whale and bear, leviathan and behemoth, fluid and fixed. Societies that were sea based were in relative flux, open to historical possibilities. Pirates and privateers, merchants and adventurers had, “fulfilled a thirteenth-century English prophecy: ‘The lion’s cubs will turn into the fishes of the sea’. At the end of the Middle Ages, the lion’s cubs were tending sheep in the main, and fleece, sold in Flanders, was processed there into cloth. It was only in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that this nation of shepherds recast itself into a sea-roaming nation of privateers, into the ‘children of the sea’”14

In contrast Russia was tellurocratic: a civilization of the land standing for closure, social unity and fixed historical dimensions. A synchronic image of Russia exists in perpetuity as an ideal for the realm of politics to emulate while its truth qua truth was essentially inarticulate for Dugin and his comrades because of Russia’s ideological and ethnological purity. But for us from a Freudian standpoint Dugin’s conception of Russia leans on an unconscious desire for integration without remainder with the primal mother, presented as a unique cosmos of tundra, plain, forest, river, Kremlin and pogost, repressed and forgotten, prelinguistic.


For Dugin the Western world view has colonized the global imagination to such a degree that he is forced to admit – like fascists and reactionary anti-modernists before him – that compromises with modernity are inevitable but even so the tellurocratic ideal of Russia stands as a cultural source or a Kitezh for the modern Russian soul. Dugin views the current world situation as a battle between liberalism and authoritarian traditionalism. Unlike other fascist ideologies, neo-Eurasianism reclaimed and defended the tellurocratic aims of the Soviet Union especially (though not exclusively) its High Stalinist period. Dugin views communism’s emphasis on the ‘people-as-one’ as an ultimate good with Lenin’s takeover of the Tsarist state fortuitous and Stalin’s expansionism as standing in the Great Russian tradition.

In contrast Dugin’s political theory considers Atlanticism, liberalism and postmodernism to be expressions of the same phenomena: the unipolar world under American leadership. So Dugin channels Rene Guenon and Julius Evola in seeing individualism, democracy and capitalism as ills blighting the modern age and therefore proposes that anti-capitalists, traditionalists, authoritarian states and white nationalists should all unite against the American world order. Unsurprisingly the rapid descent into conspiracy theories about the New World Order is not far behind.

If communism (the second political theory) and fascism (the third) were remnants of a bygone age, Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory united the anti-capitalism from communism and the nationalism from fascism, into a new anti-cosmopolitan and anti-individualist theory, the Fourth Political Theory, that was a harbinger of a multi-polar world of civilizational complexes without internal schisms or autonomous populations. Instead each distinct peoples would be shaped by a traditional outlook determined by their specific history and geography in heteronomous ‘units’ whose interrelations would be conducted by elite power-holders.

To use Lefortian terminology, the unique symbolism integral to democracy in which power is an open space occupied by the competing claims of different groups, is repudiated in favour of autocratic rule on behalf of the ‘people-as-one’. The Other(s) who must be respected and accepted as a legitimate actors in a democratic polity are to be cast out and annihilated in a traditionalist polity. According to Dugin, the symbolic space of power is now filled by that modern Tsar, Vladimir Putin and his state. Thus in Castoriadian language, Dugin aspires to a new social imaginary based on a very firm idea of what Russia is – in which gender roles are conceived in traditional terms and strictly maintained, the ‘nations’ of the Russian empire are under Moscow’s dominance (exposing Dugin’s unconvincing claims to respect all ‘Eurasian’ cultures) and Russian civilization is a world of closure based on traditional values. The endless plain is the infinite stage for Eurasian civilization that reaches back to the golden horde and pre-Petrine Tsardom.

This perfectly encapsulates a philosophical version of Putin’s worldview:

“Do not harbour any illusions,” [Putin] once told US vice President Joe Biden…”We are not like you. We only look like you. But we’re very different. Russians and Americans resemble each other only physically. But inside we have very different values.” According to one of his closest aides, Putin thought long and hard about traditional Russian values. “Putin was more concerned about values than about Russia’s unique path,” says the aide. “He believed that building capitalism was every country’s destiny.” The main source of Putin’s contemplations was the philosopher Ivan Ilyin. Based on Ilyin’s works, Putin placed the basic values of Russian society in this order: God, family, property”15

Though Dugin’s influence is often overstated (he is certainly not at all influential on the power holders policy decisions), he has not been short of work or commissions in Putin’s Russia (Dugin can be seen on RT cable news regularly). Putin himself has recommended Russian’s read Gumilev and the genuinely frightening Slavophile fascist Ivan Ilyin. Dugin lost some of his influence when his outright genocidal fascism – calling for all Ukranians resisting Russian power to be killed – proved a bit too much for the notoriously cynical and savvy operators in the Kremlin. However, the annexation of Crimea, the repression of that peninsula’s Tartar population and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine complete with the founding of bogus ‘Peoples Republics’ (Donetsk and Lugansk) was an operation that drew the support of every Russian fascist and not a few nominal leftists for whom the recycled symbolism of Stalinist power was too libidinally heady to resist. The whole annexionist enterprise was predicated on the traditional imperial symbolism of the Russian imaginary of the Orthodox-Eurasian civilization and fully supported by the Church. Russia’s outrageously effective sponsoring of the European far right and, above all, Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, was again posited on the basis of strong opposition to cosmopolitanism in favour of a traditional-reactionary weltanschauung based on closure, white nationalism and patriarchy. In that sense both Putin and Dugin were swimming in the same stream.


Why talk about Russia now other than its importance as a great power? One reason is because of its Otherness. Indeed it might be this Otherness that attracts some sections in Western democracies repelled the meaningless of contemporary consumerist culture, as the ideological bearings of traditional forms of identity come apart further. Not only Donald Trump but Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and the various leaders of the continental post-fascist parties, have all expressed admiration for Putin. Right-wing populist politics in North America and across Europe is mutating into a traditionalist-reactionary block that openly admires authoritarian states like Russia which stand for anti-cosmopolitanism and heteronomy. Much of the North American and European left has fallen for this Putin mania – with a myopic inflation of the dangers of America imperialism leading them to campist conclusions. For evidence, witness much of the left’s open or more cryptic support for Bashar al-Assad’s war on his own people on the basis of opposition to non-existent American intervention and phantasmagorical regime change. Such powerful illusions again recall our earlier point about the psychical feelings of oneness, unity and wholeness which can be derived from the anthropological (ontogenetic) experience of the infant that underpin the appeal of monistic weltanschauungs, as a particular response to the meaningless of modern society.

The pioneers of the classical psychoanalytical tradition studied psychotics not just to ‘treat’ the afflicted as physicians but because they believed these benighted psychotic individuals who found reality as a whole literally so painful they had broken with it (the psychotic break) and constructed their own world, revealed to us something profound about the human psyche. I am not suggesting that heteronomous societies are psychotic but rather that closed worldviews cannot adequately cope with the inter-subjectivity required by a modern world whose inherent nature means human rights, human autonomy and diversity are important positive values. Recently Joel Whitebook suggested that Trump supporters rejection of modern American, particularly the reality of an America where whites are no longer a majority, has led then to reject reality altogether:

“Of course, a clinical psychoanalytic experience and general social experience are not strictly analogous. But a comparison of them can prove illuminating. Just as disorientation and bewilderment tell analysts something significant about what they are experiencing in the clinical setting, so to our confusion and anxiety in the face of Trumpism can tell us something important about ours. I am suggesting, in other words, that Trumpism as a social experience can be understood as a psychotic-like phenomena”.16

Does Trump represent the primal mother to his supporters? Perhaps. But a social phenomenon like Trump or Brexit or even continental post-fascism, Modi or Duerte, all share a backward gaze to a past that in fact never existed. Where the majority ruled without uppity minorities demanding to be accounted for, when the nation was ‘one’, homologous, home. The tendency of the psyche to strive for undifferentiated oneness finds potentially dark and dangerous material here.

In an important article Hartmut Rosa discussed those attracted to such politics:

“Their relationship with the world is precarious and rebarbative, they feel unheard, unseen, isolated and voiceless in an indifferent or even threatening environment, where the most important thing is, as far as possible, to keep the world at bay. The Other, the vital, the young, the intangible must not affect them, either physically or spiritually, let alone transform them. The more disillusioned and depressed, the more alienated people feel, the more drastic becomes their craving for a strategy of immurement. The world that seems a threat to them must be kept at a distance and their relationships with it reduced to a minimum…Parties such as the AfD (Alternative for Germany) in Germany, the PiS (Law and Justice) in Poland, the SPO (Party of Civic Rights) in the Czech Republic, the Front National in France, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party of Freedom) in the Netherlands and the FPO (Freedom Party) in Austria all converge in their repressive and at times racist refugee policies, which are geared towards the radical exclusion of foreigners. This is the ‘essence of their brand’, and it is no coincidence that this is also the key to Donald Trump’s success. Foreigners and their ways are to be kept out with walls and fences – and if necessary with mines and guns”17

The necessity of fashioning a proper response to this phenomenon is urgent. The C20th versions of radicalism, of left politics, produced more of the same: monistic worldviews that became functionally similar to the ideologies they ostensibly replaced. A new imaginary is vital but it must avoid ideology and certainty and instead inscribe diversity and otherness as positive values at its centre. It must be aware of the temptations and dangers of the psychic drive to unity and put such drives to work in ways that benefit inter-subjectivity – in music, art and the appreciation of a natural world that humanity is ineradicably connected to. Perhaps then our otherness may not be the darkness lurking in our psyches.


by JJR


1. Arnason, The Future That Failed: Origins and Destinies of the Soviet Model
2. Nicolai Berdyaev, The Origin of Russian Communism.
3. Berdyaev, ibid.
4. Berdyaev, ibid.
5. Berdyaev, ibid.
6. Berdyaev, ibid.
7. Joel Whitebook, Whitebook in Monotheism and the Repudiation of Feminity
8. See the discussion of Loewald on the relationship of pre-Oedipal to the Oedipal, the maternal to the paternal in the ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ in Whitebook, Freud, An Intellectual Biography pp.169-70.
9. Berdyaev, ibid.
10. Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society.
11. George Vernadsky, History of Russia
12. Maslovskiy and Shangin, Orthodox Religion and Politics in Post-Soviet Russia from ‘Religion and Politcs: European and Global Perspectives’ Edited by Johann P. Arnason and Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski
13, Maslovskiy and Shangin, ibid.
14. Carl Schmitt, Land and Sea
15. Quoted in Karen Dawisha, ‘Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?’
16. Joel Whitebook Trump’s Method, Our Madness
17. Harmut Rosa ‘Adaptation not Fossilization, Two Responses to the Refugee Crisis’

Our Capitalist Universe: Camatte and Castoriadis on leaving this world


The future is inestimable. After the obvious failure of the Marxist telos and liberal capitalist ‘end of history’; and the persistence of imperialism, war and the rising new authoritarianisms across the globe, this should be obvious. Society runs on the significations it produces and the imaginary that those significations become embedded in.

Marxism and Communism were capitalist countercultures; this view is explicitly taken up by two of the most interesting figures to come from the extreme left of the Socialist movement, Jacques Camatte and Cornelius Castoriadis.

The idea of overcoming capitalism by using its presuppositions or on the basis of how it has changed the planet (industrialisation, centralisation, etc.) or that Communism is immanent but a prisoner of capitalism cannot be squared with history. Historical materialism often appears as a backwardly constructed functionalism, especially when its adherents have been hard pressed to make a single correct prediction based on its suppositions.

In this essay I wish to explore the idea of leaving Capitalism in distinction to passing through or overcoming it (as per the classical conceptions of socialism) in the aforementioned writers work.

“Each society creates its own forms. These forms in turn bring into being a world in which this society inscribes itself and gives itself a place. It is by means of them that society constitutes a series of norms, institutions in the broadest sense of the term, values, orientations and goals” Castoriadis, The Greek and the Modern Political Imaginary.

For Castoriadis, each type of society is constructed around a sui genesis series of social imaginary significations which congeal into the social imaginary of that society. Historically ideas and concepts have been transmitted from other eras and societies through historical rediscovery and inter-societal interactions, but more often than not these transpositions have been anaclitic, that is to say there is a leaning on relationship where elements are taken on but meaning is furnished anew.

From his essay ‘Marxism and Revolutionary Theory (1961-65) onwards Castoriadis considers Marxism irreconcilably split between a historical struggle for human autonomy against alienating and exploitative social systems, as best exemplified in Marx’s short historical masterpiece The Civil War in France, and a positivistic notion of historical progress based around the idea that development of the productive forces as an ultimate good and the Base/Superstructure conceptualisation of creation in the socio-historical. The latter was developed as an inescapable schema in which the human element was almost completely smothered, and projected back through history. In short, Marxism is imbued, root and branch, with the capitalist imaginary.

From the outset, and sometimes also later on, Marx was inspired by the best in this historical creation. From the outset too, however, he displayed the rationalistic,scientistic, theoreticist tendency that rapidly gained the upper hand and practically crushed the other one. This second tendency induced him to seek an overall and complete explanation of society and of history, to believe that he had discovered it in the “determining” role of production, and, finally, to erect the “development” of production into the universal key for the comprehension of history and the Archimedean point for the transformation of society. Marx was thereby led, in fact-and regardless of what at times he might have continued to think and to say—to narrow down greatly the field of the movement’s preoccupations and aims; to concentrate completely on questions of production, economy, and “classes” (defined on the basis of production and economy); and, quite naturally, to ignore or to play down all the rest, saying or implying that the solution to all other problems would arrive as part of the bargain when the capitalists were expropriated. The political question in the broad sense (the question of the overall institution of society) and the political question in the narrow sense—power, its nature, how it is organized, the possibility of the collectivity effectively exercising it, and the problems this exercise of power raises—are ignored or, at best, envisaged as corollaries that will be established as soon as the main theorem is demonstrated in the practice of revolution.” Castoriadis, ‘Socialism and the Autonomous Society’.

Every civilisation has its rendezvous with a Godhead, whether totemic father or cultural constant. For Castoriadis, Capitalism – the first social system in which the economy takes the predominant role is – despite the persistence of traditional ideology of different kinds – the quest for ever increasing outputs/profits for fewer inputs/investment is part of a wider drive for ‘rational mastery’. One can see this throughout the classical period of capitalism, the statist/corporatist model of the Cold War and the current neoliberal/austerity turn. This key signification of Modernity permeates our world – in the way we conceptualise the physical world as science, the raising of children, our interactions with each other and the way we assign value to all phenomena –it is how nature becomes ‘natural resources’ and how creativity is judged as worthwhile or not.


Camatte thinks that the logic of capitalism has taken over the movements that stood for its abolition, from Against Domestication:

All the movements of the left and right are functionally the same in as much as they all participate in a larger, more general movement towards the destruction of the human species. Whether people stay confined within certain obsolete strategies and forms, or whether they submit to the mechanisms of technology -either way the result is the same. Historically, the categories of left and right seem to emerge as a duality at the beginning elf the nineteenth century when the capitalist mode of production was beginning to exert its real domination over the process of production, and was becoming a true social force. Thus certain people like Carlyle found themselves in opposition to the apologists of capital, but it was left to Marx to go further: he affirmed the necessity of developing productive forces (and therefore science and technology as well), and at the same time denounced their negative effects on people in the immediate situation. But he thought that all this would eventually lead to a contradiction such that the development of productive forces would no longer be possible without the destruction of the capitalist mode of production. Thereafter these forces would be directed by people themselves, and alienation would cease to exist. But this was to presuppose that capital would not be able to become truly autonomous, that it could not escape from the constraints of the social and economic base on which it is built: the law of value, the exchange of capital and labour power, the rigorous general equivalent (gold), and so on.”

It is rather a strange hypothesis in which the laws that Marx saw underpinning capitalism have ceased to be valid but while the formal categorisation of forms of society in the historical materialist framework (modes of production) remains unchallenged. One would think that the failure of the content of the theory would result in a revision of categories.

Instead, perhaps we should say that power (class power, power of men over women and families, the power of ideological authority, and counter-power) exists and operates through the culture we live in, through certain significations written anew by human action, the anonymous collectivity of humanity. (Nitzan and Bichler’s Capital as Power project is probably in the most thorough attempt to think through the idea of a post-Marxist anti-capitalist theory of the global economy, and thinking about their work could useful for the idea of leaving capital).

Camatte continues:

Revolution can no longer be taken to mean just the destruction of all that is old and conservative, because capital has accomplished this itself. Rather, it will appear as a return to something (a revolution in the mathematical sense of the term), a return to community, though not in any form which has existed previously. Revolution will make itself felt in the destruction of all that which is most “modern” and “progressive” (because science is capital). Another of its manifestations will involve the reappropriation of all those aspects and qualities of life which have still managed to affirm that which is human. In attempting to grasp what this tendency means, we cannot be aided by any of the old dualistic,manichean categories. (It is the same tendency which in the past had held back the valorization process in its movement towards a situation of complete autonomy.) If the triumph of communism is to bring about the creation of humanity, then it requires that this creation be possible, it must be a desire which has been there all the time, for centuries.

For Camatte, capital has become autonomous and its one-time gravedigger has now become fully integrated into its system. The ‘mode of production’ has domesticated the dominated subject. The system runs on its own logic and if human beings are able to escape it then the answer is a fundamental break and a return to a human community.

Would this human community be an outgrowth of our non-alienated species-being? Marx’s labour-centric vision of man suggests so but every society creates its own image of humanity, and Marx’s idea of man was extrapolated from the society he lived in. Camatte’s idea of man’s nature perverted by class rule is an untenable continuation of Marx’s idea, where could man draw this perversion from? The desire to return is dangerous, there is no lucidity in an imagined returned to a situation we have no consciousness of, and lucidity is certainly necessary for consciously transforming society.

Castoriadis’s position is far more tenable than Camatte’s whose extreme reification of the ‘capitalist mode of production’ (CMP) cannot account for the continued functioning of society – creative interaction is needed for that – and any idea of a human community needs furnishing with meaning itself, it does not lie outside of history or as an outgrowth of biology/psychology. In the process of assigning meaning, the presence of possibility for the provision of the most basic biological necessities aside, there is nothing intrinsically human about human societies that are not the creation of the human imagination through sublimation. The assigning of meaning is our own act, the question becomes whether is it done in heteronomy or autonomy.


In the final sentence quoted Camatte talks of Communism, let us take a short diversion.

The socialist movement, in the broadest sense, up to and including the Second International, for all its flaws, was at least was endowed with a socialist social imaginary that was plausible and foundational to its political aesthetic. Charles Fourier’s phalanstère was intended to be a social environment where the interplay of human passions, harmonious feeling and thought, could be reconciled to the benefit of the individual and collective. Imagining the merging of human labour and ‘non-productive’ human activity (play, sensual pleasure, etc.) on an egalitarian basis in line with the seasons, numerology and the empowerment of women was an audacious conceptualision of the end of poverty and hierarchy. The communities he inspired may have inevitably failed but he – like those he influenced – Breton, Benjamin, Marcuse and the Situationists amongst others – have provided much inspiration to the construction of visions beyond capitalism.

In William Morris’s News from Nowhere the future socialist order was craft orientated communism in medieval robe. In design and aesthetics nature was simply adorned with the beauty of handicraft folksiness. Egalitarianism had brought together physicality and mind in a valuable amalgamation. Outdoorsy men and self-possessed domestic women (his imagination sadly and strangely didn’t stretch to the end of the gendered division of labour) living in an idyll not quite rural or urban. The plentiful social product was plain and simple goods for the consumption of the classless population.

This utopian content of the socialist imaginary was also important to the Second International. Marxism was ‘true’, Socialism as the inevitable progress in history, future communism was abundance provided by modern technique without the parasitical bourgeoisies. At first glance these things sit uneasily with what was the everyday work of the movement: struggles for suffrage, working class representation and improved wages and conditions. However, it surely functioned as a consolation for many socialist workers and party militants in the vicissitudes of their struggles. History was on their side, the science that powered production lines, steam trains and newly developed electrification infrastructure also guaranteed the programme of the party and the movement of history.

The new and importable technology that created the conditions for the rise of a working class in European Russia over the course of decade or so also gave rise to fantastical visions of a technologist communist utopia. The bestselling literature in the early RSFSR of which the earliest and best examples were Alexsandr Bogdanov’s Bolshevik Science-Fiction novels from the pre-revolutionary period.

Bogdanov’s two works of Socialist science fiction, Red Star (1908) and Engineer Menni (1912) sketch an idea of a future socialist society better than most, often criticised for being proto-Stalinist if anything their historically determinist narratives of large-scale industrial (if relatively pollution free) technologically advanced societies are straight from the imaginary of Second and Third International Marxism. Rationalisation based on capitalist principles (in Red Star computers work out and deliver statistics by the second) plus Marxist ideology makes a socialist state, Lenin would have surely added ’…and the rule of the Party of the Working Class’ and agreed.

Richard Gunn has written of how Utopian thought deals in space, whereas Apocalyptic thought deals in time. The original utopian fictions explored the topography of ideal-type societies, as Gunn calls them, by negotiating their terrain. Often this consists of little more that listing opulent constructions and the grand dedicatees of luminous towns, such as in Capanella’s ‘City of the Sun’, surely a foundational text of bourgeois ideology in its praise of empirical reason and the great minds of great men. Literary utopias often emerge at times of great change; an ideal-type society with two key concepts of 20th Century capitalism computation and mechanised mass production – can be seen on Bogdanov’s Socialist Mars.

That imaginary has clearly failed, socialism is not inevitable and the idea of the continued expansion of the productive forces as the key driver of historical progress, whilst being clearly not tenable in itself, is not compatible with the continued existence of a habitable planet. Capitalism has not become a fetter on the development of the productive forces, quite the contrary (which is not the same thing as saying that there are not better things to allocate resources toward). So the socialist movement is left with no clear view of its mission, its aims and, therefore, a practice that breaks with past failures. The sects continue to run as theological operations dependent on hero worship of long dead figures and bad faith hermeneutics. The larger parties of the left long for an age of party-states and working class mono-culture that thankfully won’t be coming back. 

We can observe two contradictory visions of Communism – capitalist abundance without class rule and a return to humanity with the end of alienating capitalist methods which both feature in Marx’s conception of communism – and putting aside the important question of whether communism is a psychically plausible idea (see the sub-chapter on ‘Communism in its Mythical Sense’ in The Imaginary Institution of Society) – we can see that Camatte has opted for an extreme version of the latter. It is to his credit, and places him far in advance of much of the revolutionary left these days, that he sees capitalist technology as being not value neutral but part of the synergy of relations of domination.

If not ‘material’ progress, where can we the find the resources to change society? Camatte’s ‘This World We Must Leave’ has an interesting take on this question:

Marx shows well that religion is a feeling (more than a consciousness) of something I call lost, but it is also the formation of another community. Now, it can be an alternative to capital, limited certainly, but operative. It is true that in accomplishing its different modernisations the church destroys itself, it tends to lose progressively the memory of what had been lost”

This amounts to creating a myth of consciousness itself, albeit it a relatively benign one. Camatte understands that leaving capital involves a fundamental break with both the reification of the world and the bureaucratic order that it entails but cannot break with the value-centric rationalisations of its self-image:

“We must abandon this world dominated by capital which has become a spectacle of beings and things…. One must reject the presuppositions of capital, which immerse in a distant past, to escape the grip of capital (moment of the dissolution of the primitive communities) and, simultaneously, one can supersede Marx’s work which is the finished expression of the arrival at totality, the accomplished structure of value, which, with its mutation of capital, has set itself up as the material community. One must envisage a new dynamic, for the capitalist mode of production will not disappear following a frontal struggle of people against their present domination, but by a huge renunciation which implies a rejection of a path used for millennia. The CMP does not decay but has a downfall” Camatte, This World We Must Leave.

But to found a new social order it is necessary to collectively create institutions, and a socialist (or autonomous) society this needs to be done autonomously, i.e. in a historically conscious way that acknowledges our needs, desires and limitations. As Johann Arnason has put it:

“The first step towards a restoration of the meaning of autonomy is a kind of demythologization: a retreat from the phantasms of absolute abundance and unlimited control over nature. These phantasms had, in a previous phase, counted for something in the attractivity of the socialist movement, but they were, on closer examination, extrapolations of the capitalist imaginary. They were, in other words, the principal reasons for describing classical Marxism as a capitalist counter-culture. A new commitment in favour of self-limitation was essential to the redressing of the revolutionary project. But this was only a prelude to a more positive reaffirmation of autonomy. This other part of the argument could begin with a new interpretation of the history of the working class, concentrated on the aspirations and episodes which had gone beyond the framework of capitalism.” Arnason, The Imaginary Dimensions of Modernity.


Reading The Making of the English Working Class we can see that an entire socio-historical movement was born by the anonymous making/doing of many thousands of people – now this, plus the French tradition and the 1848 revolutions, etc – were of course extremely important to the development of the socialist movement and Marxism. The rise of an industrial working class in the context of ‘the development of the productive forces’ gave us Marxism in its highly determinant form that was part of the politics of all its major practitioners. We have seen recent struggles throw up some new ideas and some older methods – some literally ancient – popular assemblies, election and instant revocation of deputies, occupation of public spaces – here we are thinking of Occupy, the Indignados, the movements of the squares, small scale attempts at direct democratic administration of both services and struggle in the free Syria cities and Nuit Debout – we should not kid ourselves of the embryonic and possibly stalled nature of these attempts but they are real in a way the failed textbook theories of the old left aren’t. No attempt can be made to try to theorise a strategy for these movements, or a new making/doing outside of them. We can, however, continue to think about how a historical orientation could enrich struggles like them we might participate in and how possibly we avoid the old flawed methods of struggle based on a determinist and elitist conception of politics and historical change.

There is no question of a return to nature – if such a thing were attempted the institutions of that society would be no more ‘natural’ than any other – but the preservation of the natural world does need to be a key signification of any socialist order.

We must proceed with the least unconsciousness possible whilst being clear than there is no question of the elimination of the unconscious or that the representations the psyche brings forth, even in an autonomous society, will always be beneficial to society. However, it is possible to create social institutions that can help alleviate psychical suffering.

A new society would need a new imaginary and that has to be created consciously and collectively. We believe that creating a society based on human needs, the reduction of alienation and social suffering and instead a nurturing of the lucid and creative potentialities of humanity is possible. To move toward that we need to leave capital and consciously move to something else – this idea of exit has good significations – its stresses our need to act and that history is not on our side, it stresses that the social system we live in is not a station of the cross but a social world born of the anonymous collective of human beings acting, for the most part, in heteronomy. The question of human autonomy and its limits as discussed by Castoriadis and Arnason seems to me to be a fruitful first step for moving toward a society not born in closure.

by Joe R

Against the politics of hatred: what can be learned from Freud and Lefort?



“For Freud ‘primal’ or originary – urphantasien – fantasies (those of inter-uterine life, of the primal scene, of castration and seduction) have an autonomous existence in the individual independent of his real lived personal history” Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel/Béla Grunberger (from ‘Freud or Reich’).

How does the hatred and xenophobia of the current period – Trump, Brexit, continental post-fascism – lean on the tendency for destruction in the human psyche? There is little left standing from the past in terms of imaginary significations that would serve to abrogate this destructiveness: democratic socialism, self-organisation, cosmopolitanism, internationalism, tolerance. While the significations that dominate – nationalism, nativism, self-interest – are analogous with deeper wishes for the destruction of the non-me, the hatred of the other. As many psychoanalytically minded theorists have noted this is often connected with a wish for reunification with the primary object, the annihilation of everything that does not conform to one’s own wishes – and on the social and political plane in authoritarian political movements where the ‘archaic’ mother one wishes to merge with is represented by a leader, a great idea, the nation, the party and at worst, a violent monistic mass movement.

Following Freud’s line of thought on the pre-Oedipal, particularly the idea of ‘primary narcissism’ which stresses the perfection of intrauterine life and, later, the period before the child has conceptualised itself as a separate being (from the breast and the mother), Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel described the psychic basis of identification with demagogues and participation in mass authoritarian (and especially totalitarian) politics as attempt to recover  that sense of undifferentiated oneness.

As Joel Whitebook has pointed out:

“Freud believed that once this original stage — which consists in a state of omnipotent perfection, containing no privation, difference or otherness — is dissolved, individuals strive “to recover” its unity throughout their lives.  This striving, it must be stressed, is as such neither psychologically nor morally good nor bad, but thoroughly ambivalent.  When it is mediated and sublimated and recreates that unity at a higher more differentiated level it can lead to the highest achievements of the human spirit: philosophy, music and religion, for example. But when it is pursued directly, without mediation, this “monster of unifying madness,” as Castoriadis has called it — which seeks to eradicate all difference and recapture the state of primary oneness directly — can lead to the severest forms of individual and social pathology, from clinical psychosis to political totalitarianism.” (From ‘Omnipotence and radical evil: on a possible rapprochement between Hannah Arendt and Psychoanalysis’)

The hatred of difference, the desire to destructiveness and the obliteration of the non-me is a wish for omnipotence, the newborn is omnipotent, knows no difference and it can create what it wishes, in the limited realm of its experience, in phantasy. Difference is what comes to it by unpleasure, the external world invading its private world forcing it to be socialised, being successful in this.

This is all intimately related to the drive death. Not in the sense that Freud often wrote about it, a phylogenetically transmitted preconscious wish to return to an inorganic state, but as Chasseguet-Smirgel and Castoriadis (in politics most unlikely bedfellows) both suggest, in the desire to crush difference and make everything conform, breaking down everything else to make it the same non-contradictory mass (like in the Sadean orgy). For Trumpism the groups that represent the other – mexicans, muslims, trans people and others – must be attacked if not destroyed (the same tendency afflicts Da’esh no doubt), the urge toward unification back to when one did not have to account for external reality uses whatever material it can. In Western history one can no doubt find a great deal of material to lean on – white supremacy above all, whilst having to banish the elements (from town hall meetings to civil rights) that stand against such notions. ‘Race’ is the perfect projection of the other, while racism is highly useful to those with most to gain from divided and dominated societies.

We are seeing, on one level, a  massive desire to regress to the pre-Oedipal. And it is no surprise that it finds itself expressed in a man so self-obsessed that he sees the world as a merely a platform for himself and his desires.

Positively valuing difference and a democratic attitude to culture are the only starting point to resisting both Trump and he ground he stands on.

Of course the left has its own ‘monster of unifying madness’ in ideology, this desire to have everything relate to a schema may be less dangerous, at least in its non-Stalinist forms, than Trump or other authoritarians but it nonetheless can only blunt our fight against them.

The positive cathexis of difference does find itself as a central idea in one form of society: democracy. Here I shall turn to the work of Claude Lefort.

While, at least in contemporary Western Europe and North America, a full turn to authoritarianism, let alone totalitarianism, has not come to pass as yet a look at Lefort’s definition of the latter is instructive. There are clear affinities with the closure that the Freudian tradition attributes to what we have described:

“… a representation of a homogeneous and self-transparent society, of a People-as-One, social division, in all its modes. is denied, and at the same time all signs of differences of opinion, belief or mores are condemned. We can use the term despotism to characterize this regime, but only if we specify that it is modern and differs from all the forms that precede it. Power makes no reference to anything beyond the social; it rules as though nothing existed outside the social, as though it had no limits (these are the limits established by the idea of a law or a truth that is valid in itself); it relates to a society beyond which there is nothing” (Lefort, ‘The Question of Democracy’)

Lefort considers democracy profoundly different to other social forms as the symbolic place of power falls to society itself. In modernity where power is desacralised totalitarianism wishes ‘to weld power and society back together again, to efface all signs of social division, to banish the indetermination that haunts the democratic experience’. Democracy takes a completely different starting point. As James Ingram has put it:

“Since the people are in fact always plural and divided, however, this can only be done by means of violence and repression, by abolishing ‘politics’. Democracy, in contrast, is a way of leaving the symbolic place of power left by the departed king empty. By fostering competition among actors and principles, it prevents any single one from standing in for the unity of society. A democratic society is thus one in which power, legitimacy, identity and unity remain in question, where the conflicts of ‘politics’ themselves make up ‘the political’.” (From ‘The Politics of Claude Lefort’s Political: Between Liberalism and Radical Democracy’).

One could say that democracy, in Lefort’s conception at least, works against the negative aspects of the psyche’s tendency to strive for unification by inscribing diversity as a positive value.

While for Hegel and Marx contradictory aspects of social reality must merge to form a new synthesis Lefort suggests that they can have their own domains that we should negotiate through intersubjective action that may or may not need ultimate resolution and that society itself should be the conscious arbiter of this. This fits with both a Freudian and Castoriadian notion of man as an imperfect and imperfectable beast, philosophy and psychoanalysis being important heuristic parts of the democratic experience. Indetermination and an openness to possibilities are the hallmarks of the modern world, the attempt to closure is the task of ideology, which should be rejected.

“Modernity has no foundation, since it emerged in and through the destruction and deconstruction of all foundations. In other words, modernity is founded on freedom. There is nothing new in this thought, for in fact all representative modern thinkers and all modern foundational documents (for example, constitutions) confirm and reconfirm it…The modern world is based on freedom: that is, freedom is the arche of the modern world. Yet freedom is entirely unfit to serve as an arche, because it is a foundation that does not found. As a Grund – to speak with both Hegel and Heidegger – it opens the Abgrund: that is, the ground opens the abyss. And since the modern world is based on freedom, on an arche that cannot found, it remains a world without foundation, a world that continuously has to reinvent itself. This is one of the main reasons why all the constructed models of the modern world are abstract, in the Hegelian sense of the word, and by definition counterfactual, and why all coherent narratives ring true for no more than a few decades.” (Agnes Heller)

Nevertheless those of us that wish to transform society in the direction of freedom are all too aware of the limitations of capitalist democracy (or liberal oligarchy as Castoriadis called it), and we rightly see that the positive aspects of liberal societies as for the most part being the fruit of struggles by workers and social movements.

One of Lefort’s most profound points is that having a democratic system doesn’t save you from authoritarianism or even totalitarianism emerging – a democratic system is merely the prerequisite for democracy where power is not embodied but is a symbolically open space – for a democracy you need people to be able to make decisions aware of the full facts and in an atmosphere of open debate. That’s why the EU referendum or the US presidential election are really examples of pseudo-democracy and why even the most democratic elections cannot close down arguments about legitimacy.

“When individuals are increasingly insecure as a result of an economic crisis or of the ravages of war, when conflict between classes and groups is exacerbated and can no longer be symbolically resolved within the political sphere, when power appears to have sunk to the level of reality and to be no more than an instrument for the promotion of the interests and appetites of vulgar ambition and when, in a word, it appears in society, and when at the same time society appears to be fragmented, then we see the development of the fantasy of the People-as-One, the beginnings of a quest for a substantial identity, for a social body which is welded to its head, for an embodying power, for a state free from division.” (Lefort, ‘The Question of Democracy’)

For Fascism and other types of exclusionary nationalism this is all straightforward perhaps. But totalitarianism also emerged out of a mutation of the ideas of the workers movement, while there are broader reasons for this one should not underestimate the desire for unification such as we have described as an important underlying psychical component of this.

In seeing class as an ‘universal key’ to understanding society Marxism tended to a reductionism that mutated the democratic demand for a ‘social republic’ of the historical workers movement into a question of a technique for the victory of labour over capital. The dialectical movement of history resolves the contradiction between capitals progressive development of the productive forces and regressive social relations by having one product of both – the proletariat – smash another – capitalist production – to inaugurate a society without want. Communism, like all utopias, proffers a society without division and as such can be read as a wish to return to the womb.

We must fight exploitation, privation and the hierarchical relations that leave people to demagogues but more than we need to help create a new democratic spirit of fighting for yourself and society, valuing diversity and a passion for community and public affairs. Otherwise domination will reinforce the most unhealthy side of our nature:

“It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave people in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones, if it were possible to be secure in the one without possession of the other.

Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day, and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive people to resistance, but crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience, which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions, only exhibits servitude at certain intervals, and throws the burden of it on a small number of people. It is vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representative of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however, important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.” (Tocqueville, Democracy in America)

It is a compelling delusion that we can have a politics that abolishes the potential for exploitation and oppression forever, but acknowledging that is a delusion does not mean we should wish not to be rid of exploitation and oppression. It is similar to the delusion that wishes to be rid of the the unconscious. Only cathected values and modes of doing that are consciously set against domination and destructiveness can guard against authoritarianism. Perhaps some of that will have to wait, considering the urgency of the situation, but if in building the movement against Trump and the new authoritarianism we can foster the values of democracy and diversity and if we can avoid the old failed lefts certainties and schemas we may have a chance of creating better, freer and more autonomous societies.

by Joe R.