Society and Politics

Keti Chukhrov. Aberrations in Anti-Capitalist Critique: Desiring Alienation team03/02/22 23:112.1K🔥

Following her essay on epistemological gaps between the former soviet East and the “democratic” West, Keti Chukhrov anchors these incompatibilities within the anti-capitalist philosophical and cultural narratives of continental thought in her book “Practicing the Good: Desire and Boredom in Soviet Socialism” (2020, University of Minnesota Press/e-flux). We publish the first chapter of the book titled “Aberrations in Anti-Capitalist Critique: Desiring Alienation” where Chukhrov reveals inconsistencies and reconstructs the logic of aberration in anticapitalist critique taking place within the conditions of capitalism.

© Robert Smithson, The Eliminator. 1964. Sylvio Perlstein Collection, Antwerp
© Robert Smithson, The Eliminator. 1964. Sylvio Perlstein Collection, Antwerp

One of the syndromes of anti-capitalist critique of alienation, both in politics and aesthetics, has been a strange aberration inherent to the post-structuralist analysis of capitalist society. Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Guattari’s The Machinic Unconscious, and Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power demonstrate this syndrome. In these cases, what is criticized is simultaneously desired and accepted as the condition of vicious contemporaneity. Thus, in the very act of repulsion there is a fascination with the repulsive. The unconscious acceptance of remorseless capitalist reality along with its fierce critique is inevitable in the conditions of the impossibility of its sublation. Therefore, the strategy for resisting alienation often resides in exaggerating and intensifying what is vicious. Consequently, radical tools of imagining or installing de-alienation are rejected as redemption. Such paradoxes are often manifested in contempt for the philosophical and artistic contexts of historical socialism. As Samo Tomšič argues in The Labour of Enjoyment, alienation should be managed rather than imagined as abolished, as the latter would only result in a compulsive and repressive de-alienation, and, further, would introduce new forms of alienation. [1] Research into Soviet Marxist thought (Ilyenkov, Vygotsky, Leontyev) in psychology, philosophy, and political economy reveals concrete cases of exerted de-alienation and its continuity with the politico-economic achievements of the October Revolution. These cases demonstrate that de-alienation is not a goal in itself, but rather the ontological effect of concrete epistemological and politico-economic turnovers and refurbishments.

I Aberrations In Anti-Capitalist Critique

Resisting alienation or “working through” it (Tomšič) in the conditions of capitalist economy tends to intensify or estrange the already existing traits of alienation. Even Brecht’s Verfremdung (distanciation), or the Russian formalists’ ostranenie (defamiliarization), functions as a symptom of alienation rather than a counteraction to it, in that it does not in any way undermine its logic. It should be made clear from the very start that the term “de-alienating” does not imply any pretension of overcoming the primary, ontological alienation. I use the term “de-alienation” to refer to a social and politico-economic practice that deals with the abolition of private property, with surpassing the division of labor and surplus value extraction. However, I infer at the same time that certain aspects of ontology that appear to be natural conditions of the primary existential alienation inherent to being might turn out to be mere contortions of a capitalist politico-economic regime of privatization and of social and class segregation. Consequently, numerous features of alienation that are treated as inherent and ontologically prescribed in sociality, subject, language, thought, signification, and labor are actually contortions caused by concrete effects of the political economy and the politics of production.

In fact, when mapping the logic of capital, Marx does not ontologize the condition of surplus in it; for him, surplus value is mainly the disequilibrium between the forces of production and the relations of production. Conversely, in Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (1974), Foucault“s The History of Sexuality, and Castoriadis”s The Imaginary Institution of Society, surplus is, on the contrary, ontologized and seen as an innate force of the libidinal. In the aforementioned works, alienation acquires an insurmountable ambivalence. Foucault shows explicitly how the clinical control and inspection of sexual pathology generate sexuality. Capitalism and Schizophrenia epitomizes the Möbius condition in which capital itself represents creative subversion, which is both axiomatic/subjugating and liberating at the same time. [2] Desire in capitalism is generated by surplus economy, but this very desire can be subversively applied against the limits that hamper capitalism’s creative and schizophrenic redundancies. Thus, the post-capitalist condition is sought within capitalism’s productive resources and its semiology. But this anti-capitalist radical creativity is not itself unalienated. On the contrary, it becomes even more uncanny and alien than the predictable modes of alienation. (Strivings toward the inhuman, the machinic, or animalic mutations, which have all been seen in the last fifty years in post-structuralism, actor network theory, accelerationism, object-oriented materialisms, and post-humanist studies might be the consequence of such a yearning for enhancing the already existing modes of alienation.) As Guattari states in his Machinic Unconscious (1979), if we remove the existential status of a human being, as well as of living consciousness, then other energetic stratifications will acquire the potentiality for production. [3]

In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx stated the premises of alienation and the paths of its sublation, which were: the division of labor, its abstract character, class division, and private property. Marx’s discovery was that the things that seem innate to human existence and social life—like trade, the division of various capacities among humans, and the need for exchanging them—are not a natural state of things, but are conditioned by private property. Thus, the division of capacities is not the motivation for exchange and trade, but rather the effect of exchange and trade instigated by the necessity to accumulate private property. Marx clearly posits the abolition of private property as the main provision for overcoming alienation. Such an abolition could restore the human condition and facilitate a conflation of the cognitive and sensuous parameters: of thinking and of objective reality. As Marx claims, production, grounded in private property, produces the urgency of need. [4] By consequence, man starts to function then as the impetus of artificially constructed, necessitated novelties, as the encourager of a new enjoyment; whereas, paradoxically, the growth of necessities simultaneously generates a lack of necessities: it necessitates novelties in order to promote new forms of enjoyment. [5] (This is precisely what Lyotard revealed in his Libidinal Economy, where lack is crucial to the construction of desire.)

This early work of Marx’s does not provide any prognosis for how the sublation of alienation and private property could be implemented. Already in it, however—and much earlier than any of the works on desire and alienation that would appear in the 1960s—Marx determined how private property and its economy of surplus estrange things and humans, and exactly by this token make things desired as “urgent needs.” Marx emphasizes that “estrangement is manifested not only in the fact that my means of life belong to someone else, that my desire is the inaccessible possession of another, but also in the fact that everything is itself something different from itself—that my activity is something else and that, finally (and this applies also to the capitalist), all is under [the sway] of inhuman power.” [6]

In this argument, the way the objects of “my” labor can be detached from “me” makes their alienation and the labor that produces them dull and uninteresting. But the market, trade, exchange—exactly due to alienating detachment—turn those objects into a desired fetish. By this argumentation Marx already predicted the craving for various modes of alienation (including transhuman horizons), caused by alienation itself.

However, for Marx the attraction to the desired fetish object is not attractive, mysterious, or enigmatic: the commodity is always estranged, but its bizarreness is conditioned by the surplus value economy. Even though the fetish object might seem inhuman and mysteriously remote and longed for, its mystery is easily decodable within the logic of production. It is possible consequently to attain another state—one in which capitalism and its inhuman force of alienation might not be desired, despite their allure. [7]

In this argumentation Marx is ethically and epistemologically quite remote from what we witness in the most important works on alienation and desire, which appear in the 1960s and 1970s: Castoriadis’s The Imaginary Institution of Society, Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, Guattari’s The Machinic Unconscious, and Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In those works, desire is constitutive of capitalist production and its surplus economy in that it produces phantasms of fetishes, while it is at the same time grounded in deferral and lack, never saturating this phantasmatic greed. However, according to Lyotard, it is this very viciousness, this very pathological undercurrent of desire that is sought after, and not merely the illusionary fetishes contrived by it. Therefore, for Lyotard, resisting capitalism is stuck within the double-bind logic of the Möbius strip—wherein alienation can be surpassed only with even greater alienation. This is how we arrive at the aberration of mistaking aestheticized alienation for emancipation. The aberration in this case resides in treating libidinality as a sort of revolutionary force directed against the reigning order.

For Lyotard, representation, virtue, law, state, and authority confront the subversiveness of libidinality. Yet, he goes as far as to say that even the law, representation, “the great Zero,” and “despotic rule” are also libidinally grounded and inscribed into the economy of desire. Thereby, power and its restrictiveness and even religion in its asceticism are libidinal, whereas desire in its own turn always faces the danger of turning into a dispositive. [8] Exteriority and interiority are fused in the Möbius logic; this implies that, while libidinality might be engaged in most despotic phantasms, it might also subvert from despotism too. In this way, it is not that evil and viciousness are chosen as the forms of protest against capital’s domination (as in classical modernism), but the choice itself is to be deferred to make such modes as pain, tragedy, or virtue unviable. Aberration does not take place when viciousness supersedes virtue, since certain concrete representations of virtue are simply considered false (for example, when one claims that “truth” is despotic, etc.). But aberration takes place when even what is truly considered to be the “common good” happens to be permeated by a vicious or libidinal genealogy. In other words, the libidinality of desire can manifest itself elsewhere, even in something that is not functioning as desire, and the yearning that saturates it. Hence, non-libidinal phenomena—religion, law, justice, virtue—also become libidinal, are also the products and embodiments of alienation. Thereby, even what might have been de-alienated—by means of approximation to the relative de-alienatedness of the common good—in fact merely remains a libidinal fantasy. In short, what might have been de-alienated functions within the very logic of alienation as well. Consequently, what could have been a project of non-alienation is in no way able to exceed alienation.

The outcome of this condition is that what has to be achieved as social virtue can only be a false, disguised virtue, functioning as a repressing Signifier, in fact. On the other hand, what seems to be alienated, perverse, or uncanny, might not be that vicious if one were to supplement it with artistic intensity, and surmount it by means of greater perversity and estrangement.

The radical critique of capitalism since the 1970s thus provides a paradoxical example of aspiring to those features of counter-capitalism that have only intensified the alienating conditions of capitalism.

One of the most structured and logical manifestations of such a stance is found in Guattari’s The Machinic Unconscious. In his critique of dominant semiology and its axiomatics, Guattari becomes a proponent of a-signifying flights from the rule of the Signifier. [9]

His logic is the following: capitalism resides in the force of abstraction, but what can subvert this regular abstraction is an even more enhanced, creatively produced, and a-signifying abstraction. Instead of articulating non-capitalist urgency in the abolition of private property—for example, overall equality of education, blurring the borders between privileged and unprivileged labor—the flight from capitalism might be sought in deviations from what functions as the universal, language, the system, power, etc. After claiming capitalism’s schizophrenic creativity as insufficient, Guattari calls for the a-signifying creativity of primitive societies and indigenous communities: of magic, dangerous animalities, deviant facilities, and de-territorializing shifts. In this new, creative, a-signifying counterstructure, diagrams supersede Gestalt and Umwelt, assemblages stand for distinct semiotic essences, the labyrinth evades platonic exit from the cave, redundancy is juxtaposed to reduction, dissociation to composition, de-subjectivized non-genital libido takes over the familially-biased genital one, infantile mumbling and its metabolism takes over adult normality, event as occurrence surpasses substances, etc.

The problem in such apologia for redundancy and a-signification is that in them the modes representing the system—law, virtue, the universal, and language—are identified mainly with capitalism and criticized precisely as capitalism’s features. (This remark is what is at stake in Althusser’s argument as well, when he identifies the ruling class, the capitalist class, and the law.) [10] Meanwhile, the abovementioned categories do not necessarily embody something exclusively capitalist. Moreover, theoretically, in the case of defeated capitalism they might as well represent that very indispensable temporary dictatorship and the law of the subjugated class (proletariat) that Lenin insists on in his The State and Revolution. In this case, the law, the common good, and organization would on the contrary function as de-alienating forces. As a result, paradoxically, subversive deviation from the capitalist syntagmatic is entitled to operate as the only remedy against it, even though in fact such deviation only intensifies the already existing alienation of the capitalist semio-system. Furthermore, in this case, the conditions that might unify and hence potentially exert socialization and certain modes of de-alienation (conditions of the common good, and its social accessibility) are denounced and claimed to have a no less alienating character, just as every other feature of capitalism. In fact, the fear and mistrust of dealienating social procedures arises from the fear of coercive equality. It is true that the October Revolution did not completely guarantee socioeconomic de-alienation; it had to be a long-term social practice that was never completed in the Soviet republics. However, what was facilitated by the October Revolution and what retained viability in its aftermath, notwithstanding Stalinism, was the criminalization of those provisions that Marx listed as alienating: private property, surplus economy, fetishized consumption, and thus, the ethics and aesthetics of libidinality. This simply meant an abrupt, overall, and hence coercive criminalization of certain forms of alienation on numerous levels—social, economic, and cultural. Therefore, it is truly a question of whether communism could be “a collective management of alienation” as Samo Tomšič suggests; [11] or whether this model—for the collective management of alienation—could only be regarded as a social democracy within capitalism. In fact, the abovementioned modes of de-alienation—abolition of private property, grounding production in use value, overall and abrupt equality in education—meant something quite harsh and unacceptable for the formerly privileged classes, insofar as it criminalized the otherwise “normal,” alienated components of the capitalist political economy.

As we see from Guattari’s arguments, alienation is not the primary cause of concern when deviating from the axiomatics of the capitalist system. On the contrary, at stake are the “normalizing” and the non-alienating functions of the law, of the common good, of organization. In other words, in fact what causes irritation with “the order” and “the law” is the capacity that would allow the law to restrict alienation, i.e., to de-alienate. This is because such redemptive de-alienation is only viewed on behalf of external powers—like God, the State, Religion, the Ideal, the Good, etc.—and is considered to be only an illusionary mode of de-alienation. In this way, it would be a false de-alienation that is only pretending to de-alienate, and by this token is alienating even more. (Religion is the classic case of such alienation, in that it pretends to represent non-alienatedness.) Consequently, deviation and subversion are used to fight the system, not because it is a vicious capitalist system, but they happen to fight precisely those potentialities of organization in the system and order that might have been the system’s de-alienating potentialities. Thus, even when resisting alienation, these deviant moves function as an opportunity to additionally and excessively alienate. Surplus value— the embodiment of abstracted labor and alienation—can then inflate to the extreme and acquire creative potentiality. For Guattari, surplus value can be viewed as a redundancy, pregnant with new productive contingencies, capable of undermining the code. It generally becomes the force capable of surpassing the code and order, without which creativity is impossible. For example, the trans-territorial mode of rhizome ecology and its deviated reproduction is explained as the surplus value of code, in which surplus value acquires the force of the a-signifying shift, of the excess, surmounting code. Surplus value rejuvenates the rules of evolution and genetics, allowing biological territorialities to become redundancies and flights within the social assemblage. [12]

If Marx was attempting to bring abstraction back to its genesis from matter, to concreteness, in order to conjoin it to the sensuous dimension, here we see on the contrary an intensification of abstraction: the normative abstraction of the code should become abstract anxiety without the object. The same goes for dissociations (disseminations), which make capitalism creative; so that they should be enhanced further to surpass capitalism’s systematic regularities. Let us remember the way that Deleuze treats the cave: instead of exiting it to return back afterwards in order to enlighten the other captives, one turns it into an endless labyrinth where there is no division between light and dark, and which one can never leave. In the beginning of Libidinal Economy, Lyotard refers to Plato’s cave in a similar way: in this case, the actors who show the objects to the bound captives observing the shadows of those objects on the wall turn out to be the shadows themselves, and not actors at all. The cave then becomes the counter-universalist and nomadic totality. [13]

* * *

Another eloquent example of aberration and confusion in the search for paths of emancipation can be found in Castoriadis’s argumentation in The Imaginary Institution of Society. His standpoint oscillates between orthodox Marxism, psychoanalysis, and post-structuralism. While Castoriadis declines a number of Marx’s principal premises, he cannot fully accept the radical post-structuralist treatments of capitalism either. When it comes to Marx’s exigency for the radical reconstruction of the social field, to the necessity of eradicating the conditions generating alienation, Castoriadis labels Marx’s political economy as ideology: as extremist rationality and cryptobureaucratic sociology. But when it comes to overtly soaring into the inhuman condition of hyperactive alienation á la Guattari, then Castoriadis pulls back and searches for classical social democratic remedies against alienation, such as participatory autonomy, individual autonomous consciousness, etc.

Castoriadis’s critique of Marx is a good example of how the unconscious desire of a capitalist subject functions in evading communism. The main thing is to clearly posit (quite similarly to poststructuralism) that alienation is generated not merely by labor division and deprivation (i.e., not so much by economy and production), but also resides deeper in the social Unconscious, which speaks on behalf of the Imaginary. Capitalism’s phantasmatic nature, as Castoriadis insists, epitomizes the condition of the Imaginary, which in its own turn is the site of the insurmountable power of the unconscious. But then, quite unlike the post-structuralists, having acknowledged the alienating power of the Imaginary and of the unconscious, having emphasized the power of the alien and the phantasmatic Otherness, he demands the agency of the Subject’s autonomous consciousness and conscious decision-making as a counteraction to the rule of the unconscious phantasm. Here we confront a confusion: capitalism can be overcome by certain components of capitalism itself that evade alienation, since capitalism contains forms of agency that are beyond and counter to alienation. Among such types of agency, Castoriadis cites the autonomy of a conscious Subject and his/her de-alienating potentiality, which can turn the phantasmatic otherness into intersubjectivity, into the “con-substantiality” of autonomous individuals. By participating together in social life, these individuals could help conflate the agency of institutions with the agency of societal texture. Such civil agency would deprive the institutions of their sovereignty in favor of society. It would de-alienate the otherwise negative social context in which everything—the market, the systems, the institutes—alienate, turning social texture into hostile and alienated otherness. Yet, when the question arises about overall, revolutionary methods of eradicating concrete forms of alienation caused by the capitalist political economy—in other words, eradicating that very phantasmatic Imaginary that speaks on behalf of the unconscious, or those very drives that blur reality by fictitious desires—then Castoriadis states that such eradication is forceful, violent, and leads to extreme rationalization and bureaucracy. In the end, it is exactly the insurmountable force of the Imaginary (i.e., precisely desire, alienation and its contingency) that becomes an irresistible, enchanting force that maintains capitalism—because its enchantment is stronger than any justice carried out in the name of equality or that of de-alienating measures (labeled as over-rationalized bureaucracy). According to this logic, even if it is important to develop types of agency for de-alienation in the midst of capitalist alienation, alienation will always prevail.

Striving towards an overt non-alienatedness would presuppose, as he claims, a violently contrived and artificial vision of being; it would construct only the fiction of the common good on behalf of the self-declared Subject claiming to be the master of history. [14]

By means of such arguments, Castoriadis dismisses Marx’s contention in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 according to which the allure of the phantasm, and hence of the commodity, can be easily undone and disenchanted by abolishing the surplus value economy. For Castoriadis, political economy and labor stop being the main realm where the conditions of alienation and class division might be terminated and sublated. This is because alienation operates libidinally, namely it functions deeper than sociality—closer to the body, skin, the drives, and the unconscious yearnings where political economy cannot reach. [15]

The cause of alienation in this case is not derived from the economic deprivation that results from dispossessing the worker of humanity, as Marx would posit it. The cause of alienation is not the artificially generated poverty resulting from distilling the surplus value of everything. But alienation, as well as the libidinal undercurrent of capital, resides in the unconscious, and hence in the innateness of the phantasmatic of the Imaginary. In this way, the Imaginary and the unconscious are the sources of both alienation and creativity. [16]

Castoriadis criticizes Marx’s economic determinism, which did not allow him to predict that capitalism contained the capacity to surpass the incoherence between productive forces and the relations of production. So that in the end, as Castoriadis claims, productive forces evolved without allowing the relations of production to collapse, quite contrary to Marx’s predictions. This is why the social systems and public relations (relations of production) within capitalism are sustained, even when they lag behind the development of productive forces. [17]

In this logic, we can see how the force that escapes the overrationalization and over-functionality of communism and the radical Marxist critique of political economy is exactly the Imaginary—the remainder that sustains such things as, for example, “the three thousand years of Christianity, the child’s infantile mumbling, the shaman’s sorcery, the power of mysterious magic” (Castoriadis) [18] and other inexplicable powers in human history.

Meanwhile, Marx’s political and ethical standpoint resides in the premise that economic conditions motivate biopolitics, that they are antecedent to the bond of political economy with the unconscious and the phantasm, which for Castoriadis (as well as in poststructuralism and psychoanalysis in general) are considered prior to economic and social alienation.

In other words, judging by Castoriadis’s argumentation, the Imaginary is the force of alienation and it embodies capitalism; but it is too powerful, creative, multifarious, to be surpassed by any severe presumption of equality or any radical, revolutionary transformation of economy and production. Thus what epitomizes capitalist alienation simultaneously contains the power to diversify it—to make it creative, subversive, and fascinating. On the one hand, Castoriadis’s stance fits the disposition of all post-structuralist laudations of alienation as an inhuman condition that can be “worked through,” enhanced, or radicalized. On the other hand, Castoriadis does not dare to make a further step towards accepting the “evil” of capitalism and its eternal “labyrinth,” as Deleuze or Guattari do. He does not refer to revolutionary social lexicons insofar as it suffices for him to confine himself to reconsidering institutions—to retranslate them from the alienated and foreign lexicon of the Imaginary into the lexicon of the conscious decisionism of intersubjectively allied, autonomous citizens.

Hence the aberration—exactly that which is proclaimed as the vice to be abolished—becomes the ambivalent, omnipresent power and fascinating “otherness” of it. But it cannot be and maybe should not be surmounted, because its vicious traits (magic, alienation, surplus) might be too precious for humanity. Castoriadis appeals to the social consciousness of the autonomous, conscious individuals participating in civil work to control the Imaginary and its unconscious undercurrents. But along with his participatory program of resistance, he calls a society devoid of alienated social structure Marx’s fantasy—a bureaucratic regime which would be similar to absolute knowledge and consciousness, bearing the pretension of making life fully cognizant. [19] There is yet another, more recent psychoanalytical analysis of alienation that insists on its insurmountability despite any social struggle. Being quite suspicious about any discreet methods of de-alientaion, Tomšič differentiates between two functions of alienation: capitalist exploitation, and the critical “working through” of various forms of alienation that he ascribes to psychoanalysis and Marxist critique. In this perspective, de-alienating methods of resisting alienation (such as attainment of use-value production in economy, communicative accord in speech, or “constructing future scenarios of a de-alienated social condition”) should be suspended, as explicitly planned de-alienation can only be repressive and ultimately lead to new forms of alienation. [20] Meanwhile alienation cannot but be sustained as an important systemic condition marking the difference, split, and surplus in language, labor, thought, and value production; paradoxically it is the acceptance of alienation that then enables resisting the exploitative forms of alienation in social systems.

However, such resistance should be implemented without fantasies of an uncorrupt sociality, or of any authentic subjectivity. [21] Quite like Castoriadis, and just like Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard claims that abolition of the libidinal drives of capitalist economy would abolish creativity, too; Tomšič argues that de-alienation in labor, language, and thought would imply their repressive regulation. It’s another eloquent example of a psychoanalytical treatment of alienation which asserts that alienation in political economy has ontological grounding, and even though it is spread across sociality, its elimination would entail a collapse of the tools of its critique and mapping, especially when alienation reaches its utmost forms of exploitation.

Even if we agree with this critical potentiality of unsublatable alienation—as it would only presuppose a false illusion of sublation—the following problem remains: If there can be a productive management of alienation and an emancipatory “working through” alienation in the form of resisting its exploitative features, it means that this would diminish the extent of alienation. Then why not term the decrease of alienation as de-alienation, marking the direction of this emancipatory process? Moreover: If no abrupt and coercive forms of de-alienation are accepted, does it mean that radical forms of termination of exploitation in the history of political struggle and social emancipation—such as the abolition of slavery or serfdom, anticolonial struggles, the French Revolution, the October Revolution, the abolition of private property and of many other forms of inequality—were repressive, redemptive, and uncritical? If critique maintains exploitation, maybe this is why the socialist revolution abolishes the social conditions in which such critique claims its emancipatory agency and establishes new conditions, effectively de-ontologizing the previous forms of alienation and its critical management. The fact that the very episteme of alienation retains its conceptual vigor and appropriates the agency of emancipation, defying such agency in the term “de-alienation,” confirms my initial allegation: the de-alienating components of the regime of the common good are unacceptable for capitalist subjectivity, even when such a subject perseveres in anti-capitalist critique.

II The Alienating Power of The General: Language, Law, and the Common Good

I will now once more reconstruct the logic of aberration in anticapitalist critique within the conditions of capitalism. Capitalism is understood as a suppressive social order, as long as it is a capitalist order; order then counts as repressive, as long as it is a capitalist order. However, the “wrongness” of the capitalist order is confused with the “wrongness” of order as such. In this case, it is not precisely capitalist order that is the condition to be censured, but any order starts to embody “the wrongness” of capital and its repressive domination. Consequently, a confusion follows: the centrifugal elements of capital (even though they are part and parcel of capital’s logic) are seen through the prism of counter-capitalist emancipation, whereas the traits of any order as such—which might not necessarily represent a capitalist order—stand for capitalist subjugation and its modes of repression. The schizophrenic components of capital are then treated as flights from law and order. Order, law, and the Good are claimed to represent repressive capital a priori, although they might as well bear the potentiality to rather surpass capital, in case they organize power and law in favor of the exploited. Thus, order and law become “wrong” by definition. Whereas any mode of opposing them stands for emancipation and has to be discovered within capital itself. This is because it remains unheeded, that, in fact, law and order are detested not as traits of capital, but as traits that restrain the libidinality of desire and enjoyment. Nevertheless, the fact that desire epitomizes capital remains indiscreet. Rather than undermining capital, the resistant forces, in subverting law and the system, represent and enhance its alienating potentiality.

In that case, the subversive means that are sought to evade order, understood as the capitalist order, pertain to capitalist anthropology and its imaginaries. Then the question is: If “evil” comes from the capitalist social order, why is any order, law, or regime of the common good then treated as the innate falsity of order, “the big Zero,” the Big Other, whereas all divergences subverting law and order, even though they might be embodiments of capitalist conditions, become vicious but inevitable tools of resistance against the false virtue of order?

As a result of such an aberration, numerous anti-systemic forms of resistance pertaining to the lexicons of capital mistakenly acquire the status of “revolutionary” deviation, and stand in for liberation and freedom. Meanwhile the order that could have been virtuous if it had not been the order of an unjust society is proclaimed to be a force of authority and subjugation, since virtue and the Good can only falsely pretend to be virtuous, no matter what they stand for. Consequently, those exact capitalist distortions of the possibility for commonness and universality—distortions of the potential for the common good—acquire the role of resistance against the apparent fakeness of the Good (as virtue’s only trait), and confront the Good, as the Good cannot but stand for suppression and bureaucracy.

Now, with all that said, let us look at the motives for resisting de-alienation—the motives for desiring alienation. Let us forget for a short time the word “communism,” which contains so many symbolic connotations, and concentrate merely on communism’s indispensable exigencies: overall equality, sublated desire, eradicated private property, and the abolition of the phantasmatic and libidinal realms of the Imaginary. Would such a world not appear to us capitalist subjects as quite an uncanny, barren land, populated by some sort of delibidinized angels, by Geist bio-robots, or neohuman titans?

Paradoxically, radical humanism and the non-alienated commons would seem inhuman and uncomfortable to a capitalist Subject. The economy of basic need would often contradict elementary comfort. The imagery of historical socialism with its ethics of modesty and anti-consumption might seem quite squalid and “estranging” for a capitalist Subject. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely due to the de-alienation of labor and economy that the socialist material environment acquires the features of the absolutely un-owned, non-private objecthood, where anything is whoever’s; and consequently, due to such radical de-privatization it seems “inhuman” and alien to a capitalist Subject, even when s/he is critical of capitalism. The capitalist Subject, even despite his/her counter-capitalist critique, would find communist living conditions uncanny. This is because to adjust to the non-alienated commons one needs to get rid of the phantasms of “the desired” and “the attractive.”

But the Subject of capitalism is anthropologically incapable of dismissing exactly those achievements of the capitalist everyday that, even despite anti-capitalist critique, remain part and parcel of life in capitalism. Stuck between the imaginaries of de-alienated sociality and the alienated Real of capitalism, the Subject of counter-capitalist critique chooses to apply the narrative of alienation to deal with the utter (alienated) reality of capitalism against capitalism’s illusory imaginaries of comfort and progress. Consequently, anti-capitalist critical rhetoric within capitalism often relies on the narratives of extreme alienation as revolutionary imagery, insofar as such imagery inevitably stands for the Real of capitalism against “cozy” bourgeois islands of elegance and prosperity. Yet this critical Subject does not notice how in his/her everyday s/he unconsciously nourishes and consumes exactly that very illusion of the “un-alienated” prosperity within capitalism, which functions as welfare for the few. Quite often critics of capitalism, who detect alienating mechanisms within capitalist illusions of progress and call for further alienation with the aim of resistant critique, are unaware of the fact that they themselves are the beneficiaries of capitalism and active consumers of capitalism’s privileges, and that it would be unbearable for them to restrict those privileges.

Let us refer in this connection to the rebuke Castoriadis made to Marx. In his argument, Castoriadis claims that if capitalism were reduced mainly to alienation, and did not also contain the modes disguising alienation, it would not survive very long. In the beginning of his The Imaginary Institution of Society, Castoriadis draws attention to an interesting paradox: capitalism does not wither away exactly because reification (and alienation) is exerted only partly in it; alienation leaves room for a certain amount of human creativity, comfort, and non-alienating forms of communication. [22] And, indeed, is commodity fetishism not aimed at producing and selling the phantasms of comfort, coziness, efficacy, high quality; in short, the phantasms of un-alienatedness? All of these can coexist with the phenomena of the harshest alienation, hardship, and deprivation.

This could be an argument against the claim about an inherent and absolute ontological insurmountability of alienation, and the redemptive artificiality of de-alienation, as Tomšič quite convincingly put it in his The Labour of Enjoyment. Alienation is as innate to being and its social extensions as the procedures of de-alienation, which in fact have always been the satellite of alienation in positing de-alienated commons in artworks, literature, political utopias, ancient ceremonies of hospitality, socioeconomic experiments, and the idea of communism, etc. In other words, de-alienation is not at all a totalitarian rule of “a master” or of a “sovereign” imposed over the contingency of life. Moreover, it is not confined to any historical period or social formation, e.g. Stalinism. It is part and parcel of the projections of the common good in the history of humanity that acquired politico-economic power in the conditions of post-revolutionary historical socialism. Yet, essential to de-alienation is that the projections of the common good—i.e., the idea of de-alienating certain forms of alienation causing suffering and exploitation—are not libidinally marked. The episteme of the common good dismisses libidinal self-love, aspiring for the political Eros of the non-self, of voluntary self-resignation. The epistemes of desire and the libidinal then are not vicious in themselves; they are simply unable to enter the economy of the common good, as they are stuck in the regime of narcissistic self-love and its various phantasmatic projections, and thereby foreclose reality. [23]

Thus, it is not surprising that even the capitalist economy produces those illusionary islands of sublated alienation, cherishing dreams about resolved antagonisms by means of expansion of consumption or proliferation of the images and sites of welfare.

Yet, according to Marxist logic, it is exactly those modes of capitalism that alleviate or disguise alienation that are derived from labor division and alienation. Paradoxically, reducing inequalities by means of a planned economy, which frees society, produces a very crude or “poor” material culture that seems alien to the gaze of the capitalist subject; whereas free market economy is able to provide images of un-alienated, decent life, despite inflicting inequalities on society. Thus capitalism not only produces alienation, but is able to disguise it as well. For example, when purchasing or using commodities, very few people concentrate on what forms of coercion and exploitation stand behind an iPhone or a luxurious hotel interior.

In his “Converted Forms: On the Need for Irrational Expressions” (1972), Merab Mamardashvili brings forth the notion of “converted forms” from Marx’s theory of surplus value, reminding us that what we treat as natural, substantial forms of being in language, psychology, economy, sociality, production, might be mere phantoms, abstract quasi-objects, which have to be unraveled as multilayered fetishist conversions. [24–25] For example, the commodity form or capital serve as evidence of exactly this; they appear as naturally given objects, but behind them are concealed social forms and relations through which they have to be understood. In this case the surface structure pretends to be the ontological content. The mind perceives these objects automatically, without discerning that they have been converted from their real social contextualization. Let’s refer to Mamardashvili himself:

Converted forms regulate the system by replenishing the cut-off links and mediations, substituting for them a new relation that ensures the “life” of the system. The initial (real) relation here cannot be brought into being in its actual mode due to having been extracted from the given system of relationships or their blurring. [26]

Mamardashvili excellently demonstrates how these fetishized conversions pretend to hide the alienation that they in fact represent. Yet even more important is that, as he alleges, by means of dialectical analysis, both layers—the false de-alienation, and the relations of alienation—can be unwound when placed under the scrutiny of selfconsciousness, which bears the potential capacity to disclose the alienated form of these chimeras of capitalist production.

* **

In post-structuralist thought, the syndrome of liberation from the Signifier is to unbind the bounded, to deviate from the established, and to fly in the face of the conventional. In this case, language—as a conventional structure—is seen as the representation of authority, rather than the vehicle of social generality. In capitalism, the primary view of societal structure is negative. What is given as the social realm existing prior to the “I” is considered a priori imposed by power and authority. Therefore, the subjectivity of an artistic or political agency has to dissociate and subvert anything that could have been historically or socially prescribed. Pathology is an inevitable component of such a society, since it needs the realm beyond the structure or organization in order to maintain this subverted, but still tamed, “beyond.” Thus, instead of normalizing the pathology, this pathologized “beyond” is cherished and included in the system as the counteracting and divergent “beyond” within it.

In such sociality, the connection between hybridized individuals is not constructed in favor of affirmative mutual production. In this case, individuals consolidate mainly against any mode of a Big Other—authority, power, subjection, law, order, discipline, etc. They connect in order to direct themselves against external negative forces, rather than in favor of constituting the unified “each other.” This was precisely why the young Marx viewed class as a problem: “separated individuals form a class only insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; in other respects they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors.” [27]

Consolidation with other individuals is then possible, mainly against some suppressing powers, whereas every “other” to consolidate with—be it a suppressor or a subaltern—remains alien (ated).

As Boris Groys remarks, there is little room left in this negativist logic for productive politics. This leads mainly to the politicization of “the negative,” whereas the politicization of the common good simply disappears. The active side in this case is not a politically motivated subject, but some external “demonic” force that always subjugates, hence one has to resist it with an even harsher demonism, or tame and moderate it (as Castoriadis claims) with forms of civil agencies. Virtue causes shame, but monstrosity and nihilism do not. [28] Hence, the principal element of struggle is in resistance rather than in social construction. In this confinement of social construction to the poetics of endless resistance, little capacity is left for self-critique (i.e., critique of the critique), or for constructive work on the de-alienation of the “other.”

III The Communist Duty to De-alienate Language

But what if the primary status quo that suppresses and subjugates is not the apparatus or the law, but the mutation (deviation) itself—the dissociation, the blur, the imprecision, the inarticulation, the mumbling, the insufficiently human, the irrational, the ever-childish—that already diverted from the light and clarity and which keeps one in the eternal obscurity of the “cave,” where detachment and alienation from “the world” are absolute. In 1963 the Soviet psychologists Alexander Mesheriakov and Ivan Sokoljanski founded the Zagorsk Internat (boarding school) for deaf and blind children. They relied on the psychological school of Alexey Leontiev—a disciple of Lev Vygotsky—and were supported theoretically by the Marxist philosopher Evald Ilyenkov. Mesheriakov and Sokoljanski developed a special tactile signal system called dactilologia, which was developed as an extension of typhlo-surdo-pedagogy (a specific methodology of teaching the deaf and blind). In his text “Where Does the Mind Come From” (1977), Ilyenkov wrote that “without pedagogical dedication these children would remain in the world where there is only matter, but not mind, spirit, psyche, consciousness, volition, thinking, speech, where there is no image and no idea of an outer world.” [29]

The goal of the school’s founders was not merely to develop the self-sufficiency of patients with hearing and seeing deficiencies by equipping students with minimal linguistic capacities via a special system of signification. They aimed to prove that pedagogy in the social context of communism was capable of constructing a full-fledged social subject with social consciousness, even despite having gravely impaired physiological and sensory capacities. This was an experiment in observing and detecting how consciousness and thinking are generated; how speech, language, and the capacity to connect material things and activity with concepts (and their linguistic forms) was conceived.

The initial psychophysical and social condition in this case was abnormality, pathology, permanent instability, and deviation. Yet the goal of pedagogy in this case was not to construct the survival or clinical protection of such divergence, but to prove that a full-fledged member of human society can emerge out of this total psychosomatic inability. In this case, it is exactly the de-alienated social and cultural environment that can become either the medium of radical emancipation, or, on the contrary, doom such students to social exclusion and a totally alienated existence. Such a pedagogical undertaking might have been viable only within the de-alienating conditions of socialist production, which had to guarantee the inclusion of the bio-physically deviant children into society as equal agents. What is important in this inclusion is that the psychic and linguistic deviations undergo explicit de-pathologizing; in this case it is the de-pathologizing of the initial pathology that happens to be emancipatory.

Let us now imagine that these “creatures” attain a minimal level of consciousness and comprehension due to someone’s personal treatment in a clinic, remaining otherwise outcasts from the rest of the society. And if anyone takes care of them, these are private or familial undertakings of concrete individuals who can afford it; or this is a civil work of compassion, pity, and charity, condescendingly assisting such patients in survival. In such conditions, the resisting poetics on behalf of an individual alienated to this extreme could be imagined as a macabre Kafkaesque animalization, a monstrous zombie grimace, or a revenging exclusion. That would be a predictable logic of resistance against social normality and linguistic canon on the part of its deficient members in an alienated society, where “the other” cannot be inscribed into the ethics and poetics of de-alienating. Under capitalist conditions, civil solidarity with the “other” mainly implies taking into account each other’s particularities and singular individual traits. But “the other” cannot be de-alienated merely by studying or integrating her particularities of existence and identity. De-alienation of the “other” can only take place as a radical decision to construct the common grounds that would abolish the watershed between the self and the other, the owned and the not owned. The subject in need of de-alienation is a fantastic subjectivity capable of producing a non-self out of one’s own self and, due to such an act, providing the space for the other-determined commons.

It should be noted that for Vygotsky, as well as for Ilyenkov and Leontiev, language is a tool of generalization rather than a structure of signification that suppresses body, affects, etc. But such generality is not an act of alienating or abstracting as is the case in post-structuralism. A word accomplishes the function of generality in that it is the conceptual tool that is used merely in accord with “the others.” A “word” is not just a signifier; it is not reduced merely to signifying form and meaning. It is an operation that already implies that it comes together with the notion (Vygotsky). But the notion in its own turn is something that is a generalized imprint of external, objective reality and the activity of labor. This means that language is not at all an autonomous realm abstained from reality and material life, as it is in post-structuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Thus the ineffable and the unsaid are not mystified and substantialized as something irrational—but are just un-realized, non-conscious, or have not yet reached consciousness. The process of generalizing via concepts does not impoverish reality and materiality or detach from it; on the contrary, it brings reality closer, since it posits it generally and objectively.[30] Even internalized inner speech and the production of thought are then the outcomes of socialization. Thereby inner speech is not the unconscious, or something innate and predominantly individual. When inner speech is refracted in a person it remains no less general than the external reality. This is what makes Vygotsky’s treatment of language different from that of structuralism and post-structuralism. For Vygotsky, the word does not come without concept; moreover, the latter comes first, and the word then realizes, finishes the general dimension of sense.

As Vygotsky incessantly repeats, “the word is ready, when the concept is ready”—not the other way around—which is an explicitly anti-phenomenological and anti-Jacobsonian standpoint. This leads to important conclusions: not only is thought not different from external material reality ontognoseologically, but the word in turn is not separate and alienated from thought and hence from objective reality either. This stance enables Vygotsky to assert an anti-Cartesian dialectical entity of being, thought, and language (speech).

Ilyenkov compares such a disposition between language, reality, and consciousness to the actions of an artist making a portrait. The artist has a model (a person) in front of himself and a canvas (screen). The object to be depicted and the tableau depicting the object are the two phenomena extrinsic to the artist. Language, as Ilyenkov claims, plays the same role as the artist: by means of language one transposes empirical data onto the “screen” of social consciousness. Thus language paints reality on the screen of consciousness. It is this generalizing role of language that saves us from collapse into the type of contact with outer reality that would be conditioned by mere non-conscious behavioral reflexes.31 According to Vygotsky, language as one of the carriers of thought transmits the automatic components of the unconscious into the consciousness that operates by intentions and decisions. Therefore, pedagogy, learning (culture) is always ahead of the psyche. Notions (which are the tools of generalization) are connected neither as immaterial abstract associations nor according to the structures of the perceived images, but as the outcomes of the relations of activity, labor, and their common dimension.

It is the other way around in post-structuralism, in which language is immaterial, incorporeal, and a systematized abstraction. It is rather in conflict with thinking and creative affectivity. Within such a logic, language is treated as the bureaucratized constancy that has the impact of the conventionalized and disciplinary alienating medium, detaching from matter, from body, from the Real, representing truth only falsely. Hence the search for subversiveness, which would evade the linguistic order, become bodily affective and reconsider the gendered body, or dissociate the linguistic order into counter-linguistic, counter-semiotic performative materiality. Thus, any artistic or creative gesture has to estrange language, alienate it further, or mutate it in order to get access to things and senses beyond it.

In the pedagogical methodology for the deaf and blind students at Zagorsk Internat, the strategy was precisely the opposite. The most crucial point was in fact a materialist premise, according to which both speech and language are not at all abstractions detached from the body, senses, gestures, and activity. On the other hand, body and senses and their materiality are not something nominalistically material in terms of being separate from the capacity for concept production. Language is merely the reflection and hence extension of activity and labor. Thus, consciousness is generated by and in activity. Language is the ideal (general) imprint of human activity and of labor that forms in their interaction with the material world. Leontiev writes in his Activity and Consciousness:

Meanings refract the world in man’s consciousness. The vehicle of meaning is language, but language is not the demiurge of meaning. Concealed behind linguistic meanings (values) are socially evolved modes of action (operations), in the process of which people change and cognize objective reality. In other words, meanings are the linguistically transmuted and the materialized ideal form of the existence of the objective world, its properties, connections and relations revealed by aggregate social practice… [32]

As Leontiev argues, meanings are merely forms abstracted from living activity and labor. Despite becoming part of individual consciousness, such meanings nevertheless continue to imply the means, objective conditions, and results of actions and labor procedures: “regardless of the subjective motivation of the people’s activity in which they are formed.” Leontiev further explains as follows:

At the early stages, when people participate in collective labor they still have common motives, meanings as phenomena of social consciousness and as phenomena of individual consciousness directly correspond to one another. But this relationship disintegrates along with the emergence of the social division of labor and of private property. [33]

Ilyenkov’s standpoint was similar to Leontiev’s position here in that there is little difference between thinking, language, and practical activity. Thinking is not passively perceiving and reproducing concepts while they are detached from activity, societal surroundings, and labor, but instead begins when the child starts to “move things” by means of notions (and notions can only be linguistically articulated). In other words, thinking becomes possible when a child first experiences translating actions into notions. Only after such a stage can one truly and consciously operate with concepts. Language (along with thought) then merely conceptualizes (endows with the ideal form) material and objective activities, including labor.

Experimental typhlo-surdo-pedagogy (founded by Leontiev, Alexander Mesheriakov, and Ivan Sokolyanski) confirmed that language is not an alienating abstraction but is a cognitive application of activity and of body and sensory experience. Ilyenkov, as well as Leontiev, insisted that thinking is acquired via the extension and translation of applied tools of activity and labor. If a hearing and seeing person hears and memorizes words and combines them with optical experience, the deaf and blind cannot perceive language by unmediated sensory means. For a person without access to either of those senses, meaning becomes translatable only via tactile, haptic contact with objects and by means of bodily acts. That’s why linguistic forms are for the deaf and blind inseparable from manual moves and haptic experience. The principal metaphor of culture and language for Ilyenkov therefore became the spoon. For Ilyenkov, the use of a spoon as a tool of primary activity for deaf and blind children was already a cultural achievement. By learning to use the spoon the child already has access to the world of human thinking, the realm of language, and even the history of world culture. As soon as a deaf and blind child is able to use a spoon, the child’s actions are no longer directed merely by biology, by the brain’s morphology, but by the form and disposition of objects made by humans—and by the outer world and acting in it. Only then does the acquisition of speech become possible. [34] Experimental typhlo-surdo-pedagogy thus became an exemplary case of how the conceptual, linguistic, eidetic, and noumenal representation and communicative skills are inscribed already in the external material objecthood that the deaf and blind apply manually, haptically, and bodily for exerting speech acts and ratiocination.

American psychologists’ method with the deaf and blind, described by William James, as in the case of Helen Keller, was precisely the opposite. [35] In this method the primary stage of successful edification consisted of mastering speech, words, and only afterwards the transition from repeating the words to a subsequent perception of the words via their being combined with certain sensory experiences. For example, Keller first learned, repeated, and memorized the word “water” and only afterwards understood that the word “water,” as her teacher Anne Sullivan instructed her, signified the liquid she felt in her hands. The signifier “water” then remained for Keller an abstract, autonomous, and detached correlation to a certain sensory experience, rather than a conceptual transmission of a concrete objective activity. In this case, the abstract word-form and its emission precede the activity that first generated the word as a concept. Consequently, consciousness as a mental and cognitive practice maintains its separation from sensory, practical, and sensuous practices. Consciousness remains internal, whereas sensuous contact with the world is external. Meanwhile, Leontiev, when commenting on the case of Keller, insisted that the success there was determined first and foremost by the zeal of the pedagogue Sullivan and her collaboration with Keller, rather than by the miracle of “recovery” due to the extraordinary mental capacities of a child.

Soviet psychology thus discovers and reveals a very important condition of social consciousness. Idealization, organization, dematerialization, generalization, universality, culture, and language are not the forms of abstraction. The procedures of generalization and ideation are not alienating; on the contrary, they emancipate a human being from obscurity and serve as unmediated and de-alienating access to the commons; of course, given that the common good already rules society.

Thus, the child devoid of the world and confined merely to body and brain morphology and doomed to darkness and silence—the creature with damaged senses—could develop his or her mind, despite the fact that the latter’s development is impossible with collapsed senses. Yet it was the collective, the pedagogical effort, activity, and concreteness of labor that turned the utmost doom of estrangement and alienation into the de-alienating condition of the commons, by superseding the missing senses and allowing the dormant mind to generate speech and thought.

In his article “Where Does the Mind Come From,” Ilyenkov describes how Alexander Suvorov (a pupil of the Internat for the blind and deaf, who later graduated from Moscow University and defended a PhD dissertation in psychology), when giving a speech before students, was asked the following question:

Your case contradicts the old premise of materialism, according to which all that gets into mind is necessarily developed and provided by senses. If your senses are damaged, how could your mind develop? How can you understand things even better than us, if you do not hear or see?

The question was transmitted to Alexander Suvorov via a tactile alphabet. And he pronounced into the microphone: “And why do you think that we do not hear and see? We see and hear by the eyes of all our friends, all people, all humankind.” [36] This answer confirms the pedagogical method of Leontiev, Mesheriakov, and Sokolyanski, according to which neither sense, nor the mind or language, are derived from any subjective, or individual incentive, but are instead the outcome and construct of socialized forms of activity.

This concrete case in question—when extreme perceptive pathology finds its un-alienated access to the Universal—cannot be exemplary for the societies of historical socialism as a whole, since the Zagorsk pedagogical school never became a general state of affairs in any of the Soviet republics.

As the abovementioned example proves, however, in the conditions of the use-value economy the forms of generalization and conceptualization are not an abstraction, or an alienated metaphysics. On the contrary, they have the dimension of materiality and can be concomitant to body/matter as its unmediated access to the common good, even despite limited sensory capacities.

IV “Historical Socialism was de facto Capitalism”

One of the most habitual arguments in denouncing the allegation about historical socialism’s non-capitalism is in the claim that it was in fact a capitalist society—there were too many essential features of capitalism in its constructive core. This interpretation of Soviet socialism was most evident and articulate in Althusser’s writing. [37] Since then this has become a more general interpretive trend, part of the prevailing status quo view of the versatile aspects of post-Stalinist socialist society. The latter is now seen as a simply fallacious and mistaken attempt to build a communist society.

Let us enumerate these arguments in order to then dispute them.

Argument 1 According to stereotypical interpretations— both from the right and from the left—socialism and its communist components were confined to the formal jargons of ideology and partocracy.

Étienne Balibar, in his “classic” oeuvre On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, argues that socialism is simply a transition from capitalism to communism; that there is no such thing as the socialist mode of production (as against the capitalist and communist ones). Socialism is a continuation of class struggle headed by proletarian hegemony; it is rather a democratic transformation of capitalism than a new episteme and ontology of sociality and production. [38] Yet, as Balibar contends, the Soviet struggle against capitalism did not enable an inner critique of class antagonism, which inevitably emerged within historical socialism between different—the more and the less privileged—layers of society. According to Balibar, class struggle in the Soviet Union was reduced to the Stalinist purges of the peasantry and of the remaining prerevolutionary bourgeoisie, or to censorship against the surrounding capitalist countries. Consequently, Soviet socialism failed in its main task of persisting within class struggle; and hence not only does Soviet socialism have nothing to do with communism, it has never even been a form of socialism.

Argument 2 The Soviet socialist political economy continued to be based on surplus value. The logic of such an assertion is the following: production of exchanged goods is commodity production; any commodity production generates value; hence, automatically, production of goods with value implies generation of added, surplus value. As Grahame Lock argues in his introduction to Althusser’s Essays in Self-Criticism, to obtain surplus value one need not necessarily have a developed system of commerce and trade, but simply any form of trading commodities, whose consumption automatically implies the creation of value, i.e., economy, determined by “the law of value.” Such a rudimentary commodity with exchange value is first and foremost human labor power. As long as labor is hired and remunerated, the capitalist condition cannot be considered cancelled. [39] The existence of wage labor in Soviet socialism confirms labor as an exchanged commodity; hence it confirms the logic of the law of value in socialism, producing in its own turn a surplus value. Consequently, historical socialism was de facto capitalism.

Following this line of argument, centralized state control and planning can also be regarded as a form of commodity circulation, because planning the economy and commodity production are compatible. Planning is nothing but bringing productive activity under control. [40] According to this logic, the socialist principle of the distribution of products according to needs does not preclude commodity exchange. For example, Antonio Negri suggests that planning and party institutions are equal to capitalist accumulation and privileged monopoly on the state’s behalf. Consequently, Soviet society is regarded by him to be de facto capitalist, and only formally expresses the language of the communist ideal. [41]

Argument 3 The fact that qualified workers in the Soviet Union had higher incomes confirms that abolition of private property does not exclude the development of a privileged (capitalist) class.

Let us try to challenge these assertions.

Counterargument 1: “There was no class struggle in the Soviet Union.”

Claiming that Soviet socialism dismissed class struggle is to consider struggle from the perspective of capitalist logic—as the resistance of the disenfranchised against the privileged classes, or as the critique of the capitalist features of economy that dominate society. But in historical socialism, a post-capitalist society, class struggle could not have the same form. In capitalism, anti-capitalist struggle tends to undermine the capitalist system, it revolts against that system. The system is grounded by inequality and hence is unfree. By consequence, the main syndrome of liberation is the resistance against this systemic subjugation. In socialism it is the other way around. It is the system that is determined by socioeconomic equality, and hence the system itself is even freer than mundane sociality. The system is oriented towards the common good much more than “ordinary life” and its particularities. Hence, sociality has to stretch towards the system rather than subvert it. For example, when the system of production and wage remuneration was equalizing the income of laborers of various skills in socialist countries, separate social groups or individuals (mainly from the “intelligentsia”) were critical of such tendency since it was neutralizing the qualification of the work done and blocked any opportunity for additional surplus income. Contrary to stereotypical opinion that the socialist society was falsely socialist, since it was ruled by dogmatic imperatives of partocracy, I argue that the party is simply the organ responsible for the provisions of the common good. That said, the communist hypothesis is broader than the party—and it exceeds party organization as a system. As such, it is not the party that rules society, but the politico-economic and socio-ethical system—and the infrastructure and epistemes generated through this system. Historically speaking, the party itself had to aspire towards the communist condition. Rather than to maintain that the party had usurped the ethics of communism for itself as an organization, it was often forced to claim its own deviations. The struggle then is not about transgressing the system, but in fitting the already established components of communism within socialism. In that sense, historical socialism, with its benefits, was nothing but a constant front line in every field against any traits of capitalism or fascination with it. In other words, the class struggle turned into a permanent vigilance in cultural politics, economics, and social life against capital. In fact, civil war was continued by other means in media, culture, and art. When numerous traits of communism already function in society, the consciousness of each citizen becomes the site of such a battle. In this case, class struggle evolves into a regime of self-critique and constant anti-capitalist self-censorship. To reiterate, the logical puzzle of Soviet socialism was that its political-economic systems contained more components of communism and a higher degree of socialism than everyday existence. If this were not the case, the economic infrastructure of the Soviet sociality would not generate so many shadow areas in production, trade, planning, etc., confirming the hidden human craving and desire for capitalist modes of life. The issue was not simply in rigid and inflexible networks of socialist production, but first and foremost in the incapacity to endure the severe experience of the non-surplus economy and of the rule of common good.

Thus, Balibar’s view on historical socialism does not take into account the logical paradox that resides in the epistemological, ontological, and temporal inversion caused by the October Revolution. Even if it is true that socialism is an insufficient communism, this is not the case because communist components are too remote from socialism and are still to be achieved by its political economy and social infrastructure. On the contrary, communism remains remote because too many communist components have already been established in political economy, education, and the relations of production ahead of time. Moreover, there are human factors and certain drawbacks in production that make those communist components unimplementable. Hence, the inevitability of the socialist modality of transition (resorting to the New Economic Policy [NEP] is a classic case to exemplify such an argument). Thus, the temporal paradox is not that socialism is a transitory stage after capitalism, and it thereby knows little of communism. Quite the contrary: precisely because the October Revolution achieves too many conditions of communism ahead of time, and precisely because the political and economic system happen to be more communist than life itself, does communism inevitably manifest itself in the guise of socialism.

The dictatorship of the proletariat then is an inner moral code. It subsists in the criminalization of any deviation from the principle of the common good and is not in need of continuing the classical anti-capitalist class antagonism between the less and the more privileged, so long as socialist revolution has already criminalized class antagonism and legally asserted the proletariat’s dictatorship as law. In other words, the aporia of struggle for more communism after successful revolution lies not in further resistance against capital; after the socialist revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat and class struggle are aimed at preserving and equipping the already achieved condition of a social classlessness. Which means that in this case the very logic and method of anti-capitalist struggle is modified.

Counterargument 2: “Soviet socialist economy was in fact also grounded in surplus value.”

Indeed, nominally considered, the use value of products in Soviet socialism was not absolute; it implied some minimal added value. But such an addition cannot be considered a surplus value. To start with, one cannot claim that the goods produced as basic need items were commodities in the same sense as the commodities in capitalist society. This can be claimed not only because such surplus was very small in socialist production in comparison with capitalist production. But also, the sum added to a product’s use value was preliminarily calculated to fit the basic income (which the Soviet salary actually was) and was not subject to market variations of prices and exchange rates. Another reason why the minimal addition to the cost of a product is not surplus value is that, surplus, as we know from the post-Marxist analysis of libidinal undercurrents of capitalist economy (Lyotard, Castoriadis, Deleuze), is not simply conditioned by quantitative augmentation of income as an automatic trait of exchange and trade. On the contrary, the quantitative augmentation and increase of income (surplus) are conceived by desire and have a libidinal and phantasmatic source. For Soviet goods, the incentive for production was not a desire or phantasm; hence the tendency was in not extorting surplus from exchange, but rather the saturation of overall basic need and generation of de-privatized and demonetized sociality that would extinguish libidinal surplus both from imaginaries about consumption, as well as from the incentives and planning of production. Surplus, then, even if it is nominally added to a use value of goods, is not meant to be accumulated as capital, but is fixed to fit the item of basic need, which in its own turn has to be distributed according to universal basic income in a socialist society. Thus, Soviet socialist production evolved a production ethics of overall basic need, rather than the “law of value.”

In this case, commodity production and planning cannot be considered compatible, since it was not the market that established prices for labor, as well as for consumer goods and services. This is to be contrasted to the capitalist economy where the market regulates prices insofar as relations of production are conditioned by the logic of private property and are built on it.

To reiterate, wages in the conditions of Soviet political economy were a distributed basic income with very small gradations. There was definitely a division of labor, but the difference in remuneration between different qualifications in labor was maximum 100 percent. (For example, 150 rubles as average compensation for any work; and 300–400 rubles for the most risky labor, for excellence in the Five Year Plan, or for remarkable achievements in science, art, production, and culture). On the other hand, in capitalist conditions such difference in wages is immense, which symbolically divides those who receive lower wages from those who receive higher wages. As a result, in capitalist society the qualitative and hence symbolic impact of the diversification of labor is immense and is practically beyond any quantification.

Counterargument 3: “Socialism never overcame the division of labor as it also applied the notions of qualified and unqualified work.”

At stake in the capitalist division of labor is not merely the split between the mental and the manual, immaterial and material labor, but also the fact of privilege in one’s right of hiring labor and extorting excessive income from it. This implies compelling those who are hired to hunt and compete for surplus income. Yet when the division of labor—socially and micropolitically—does not end in any considerable difference in remunerating labor, then labor cannot be considered to be bought and sold. On the contrary, it is programmed as organized production aimed at distribution of goods for overall social need and supply. In other words, the relations of production in Soviet socialism institutionally (and not simply juridically) excluded the possibility of any substantial priority of revenue and hence molded the economy according to such impossibility. Privileges in fact were deviations, which were unmistakably cherished by some members of the partocracy, but simultaneously they were forced to move underground, into the shadow economy. Labor, then, despite the cases of division, is not a personal activity in this case; it is not hired or supplied as commodity, but it is a general necessity for each person and has the function of social wealth.

What are the radical outcomes of such a condition? One’s achievement in labor counts as common good for the benefit of society, and is not rewarded and distinguished in a monetized way. Exactly because excellence in knowledge production, culture, art, or technology were not receiving sufficiently diversified remuneration in the Soviet Union, members of the socialist “intelligentsia” formed an unofficial confrontation with the hegemonic position of the “proletariat.” Yet this confrontation took place only as a marginal discourse, while the official hegemony belonged to the rhetoric of the “working class.” To reiterate Marx’s maxim from his Critique of the Gotha Program: “From each according to one’s abilities, to each according to one’s needs” in fact changes the ontology of labor, in that labor ceases to be an individual endeavor with individual interest for remuneration, but becomes a generic activity.

In this case, an achievement does not belong to an individual person engaged in a concrete activity, but is counted as common wealth, belonging to everyone. By consequence, not only does monetized surplus not accumulate with a proprietor and become private property, even the symbolic surplus of a given labor achievement can’t be accumulated by its producer. This is why the Soviet Union had no need to institute a star system of celebrities. On the other hand, it instituted the system of the “heroes of socialist labor.”

Later on I will show how the philosopher Ilyenkov proves that all labor is cultural and philosophic, and demonstrates that social wealth is not defined by value production (Wertbildung).

It must be kept in mind that if wealth in socialism can only be a common wealth, then the constraints of the basic need economy can be considered scant and squalid only from a capitalist perspective. Following such logic, what indeed seem to be images of poverty when viewed from a capitalist gaze might in fact be wealth in another, non-capitalist system, simply because wealth in the context of the commons and in the context of individual prosperity imaginaries, respectively, are drastically different ontic and ontological phenomena.

* * *

1. Samo Tomšič, The Labour of Enjoyment: Towards a Critique of Libidinal Economy (Berlin: August Verlag, 2019).

2. Such logic follows the Althusserian disposition about the interpolated subject, which is constructed as an emancipated unit simultaneous to being ideologically marked and subordinated.

3. Félix Guattari, The Machinic Unconscious, trans. Taylor Adkins (Los Angeles: Semiotext (e), 2011), 33–57.

4. Karl Marx, “The Meaning of Human Requirements Where There is Private Property and in Socialism,” in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 115–135.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., 124.

7. Ibid., 121.

8. Jean-François Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London and New York: Continuum, 2005), 5–6.

9. Félix Guattari, The Machinic Unconscious, trans. Taylor Adkins (Los Angeles: Semiotext (e), 2011).

10. Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (London; New York: Verso, 2014).

11. Samo Tomšič made this statement as an argument to the present chapter at the Historical Materialism conference in AUB, Beirut, on March 10, 2017, on a panel moderated by Ray Brassier. See also: Samo Tomšič, The Capitalist Unconscious: Marx and Lacan (London and New York: Verso, 2015).

12. Guattari, The Machinic Unconscious, 120–122.

13. Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, 12.

14. Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 1987), 110-115.

15. Ibid., 132–135.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 42–45.

18. Ibid. 39

19. Ibid., 110–113.

20. Tomšič, The Labor Of Enjoyment, 123–137.

21. Ibid., 122.

22. Castoriadis, in The Imaginary Institution of Society, 13–28.

23. John Roberts, Self-Love and the Love of Capitalism (unpublished manuscript).

24. Merab Mamardashvili, “Converted Forms: On the Need for Irrational Expressions,” Stasis, vol. 5, no. 2. (2017): 204–217.25.

25. Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part 1 [1861–63], ed. S. Ryazanskaya, trans. Renate Simpson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1969).

26. Merab Mamardashvili, “Converted Forms,” 211.

27. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 4 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975–2004), 77.

28. Boris Groys, “Consistent Atheism Makes Complaint Impossible,” in Raznoglasiya [Dissent, journal of social and artistic critique], vol. 6 (2016):

29. Evald Ilyenkov, “Otkuda Beriotsa Um” [Where does the mind come from], in Filosofia I Kul’tura [Philosophy and culture] (Moscow: Politizdat, 1991), 30–43.

30. Lev Vygotsky, Thought and Language, trans. Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar, ed. Alex Kozulin (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986).

31. Evald Ilyenkov, “Mechanism of Consciousness and Abstraction,” in Dialektica abstraktnogo I konkretnogo v nauchno-teoreticheskov mishlenii [Dialectics of the abstract and the concrete in scientific and theoretical thought] (Moscow: Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences, 1960). See, in Russian:

32. Alexey Leontiev, “Meaning,” Activity and Consciousness, 1975. Available at:

33. Ibid., 126–129

34. Ilyenkov, “Otkuda Beriotsa Um,” 30–43.

35. Alexey Leontiev, Activity and Consciousness.

36. Ilyenkov, “Otkuda Beriotsa Um,” 43.

37. Louis Althusser, Essays in Self-Criticism, trans. Grahame Lock (London: NLB, 1976).

38. Étienne Balibar, On the Dictatorship of Proletariat, trans. Grahame Lock (London: NLB, 1977), 140–45.

39. Grahame Lock, “Introduction” in Louis Althusser’s Essays in SelfCriticism, 18–19.

40. Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968), 53.

41. Antonio Negri, “Soviet: Within and beyond the ‘Short Century,’” South Atlantic Quarterly 116, no. 4 (October 2017): 835–849.

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