• The Left Alternative – The Search for a Subject of History

  • Por Ludmilla Bulavka-Buzgalina | 06 Mar 17 | Posted under: Cultura y Arte , La Izquierda , Historia
  • Globalisation is increasingly influencing us. On the one side, it opens up new forms of a networked internet civilisation; on the other side, it entails irresolvable contradictions. The events of the recent period show that today, both for the West and for Russian society, it is not the challenge of modernisation that is becoming central – this train has long ago left the station; instead, what is on the agenda is a revision of the bases of its future development. These bases, whose first element has to be the idea of the human being as the subject of the socio-historical and cultural development of society, would constitute a left idea. But this is only possible if the creative individual him/herself changes the social relations in which he/she lives.

    According to Marx, self-change and changing conditions coincide in revolutionary activity. This idea was further developed in the works of leading Marxists both in Russia (Georgi Plekhanov, Vladimir Lenin) and in Europe. Erich Fromm accurately states that Marx saw that no political force can fundamentally call new things to life if the latter have not already grown in the womb of the social and political development of the given society. Therefore one must and can seek alternatives within the present to an existence in which the individual is assigned the role of a mere function. The necessity of a fundamental renewal of the social system both in the West and in Russia is directly tied to the search for a new vector of historical perspective. How does the problem appear now and how can it be solved?

    The lack of alternatives produces a regressive dialectic

    Almost 100 years ago, in 1917, the Bolsheviks challenged world imperialism with their socialist alternative at the end of the First World War. In post- Soviet Russia, in 1991, the opposite occurred. It was not just the liberal vector, the vector of regression, that was chosen. The rejection of the search for an alternative both to neoliberal capitalism and to Soviet bureaucratism after the fall of the USSR diverted the development of the Russian system into the tracks of a regressive, reversive logic. This regressive movement led, on the one hand, to the disintegration of everything that could have represented the potential for real development and, on the other hand, to a strengthening of old (Soviet) forms of alienation as well as the emergence of a new ‘mutant capitalist’ form of alienation. We constantly see examples of it. The ideologues of Russian liberalism think that the market is the only possible alternative to Soviet bureaucratism, but the market reforms have led to a corrupt bureaucracy synthesising the worst features of the Soviet and capitalist systems. This negative convergence is the essence of the regressive dialectic resulting from the subordination of the former socialist countries to capitalist globalisation. It is thus no accident that the assignment of their role within global capitalism was only possible based on the disintegration of their own identity. In the following analysis, therefore, we will concentrate on one of the most important and least researched lessons of the recent decades involving the left’s social-cultural alternatives.

    From the USSR to Russia: Six lessons of the degradation of the country’s cultural potential

    The reversive capitalism in Russia is drying out everything that had remained alive in production, science, and culture. This hit everyone hard, but the left in particular. The reason is simple: the absorption of Russia’s cultural potential as part of the liberal reforms cut off the possibility of forming a left alternative as a cultural project. This is true both on the level of political demands and that of the practical realisation of such projects. Not only the course of events but also the lessons of this frightful process are of fundamental importance for the future, and so we will develop its key points here.

    First, in the course of the reforms the dominion of private interest increasingly crowded out the interest of society, the realisation of the former became the main content of all fundamental socio-economic institutions: the market, state, political parties, and also the church.

    Second, in the reform years a qualitative change took place in the foundations of the system, which determined its development. While the basis of the Soviet system (despite all its contradictions) was the principle of practically changing reality, the basis of the modern Russian system is the relation of buying and selling, the total market. For the majority of its citizens the collapse of the USSR represents, on the one side, a historical catastrophe and personal tragedy and, on the other side, an opening up to the consumption possibilities of Western civilisation (clearly only for those who have the money to afford it). This meant a change in the meaning of their existence. To the extent that the cultural-intellectual content of life activity was emptied out the spirit of consumerism increasingly won out. And just as the assortment of market goods is being constantly renewed so the possibility of consumption (if people have the means for it) is insatiable and produces the appearance of continual renewal. In reality, however, it generates in Hegel’s words a ‘bad infinity’ as a simulation of development. The dominant place in the post-Soviet individual’s system of coordinates is the space of buying and selling, in which history is no longer understood as something in movement and culture is no longer seen in relation to other social spheres. And this mode of existence – market-oriented in form and sterile in content – is praised by the ideologues of Russian liberalism as the ideal of modern Western civilisation to which we must supposedly all aspire. But the pursuit of market happiness is a simulation of movement that only produces meaninglessness.

    Third, the rejection of subjectivity – from the new man to the petit bourgeois. The new man was above all a person who overcame the limits of the old world (the world of social alienation). He was the subject of the restructuring of his surrounding world by means of the resolution of the contradictions produced by the domination of various forms of alienation. But he was no Übermensch. The new man is the subject who creates history and culture, and the nature of his activity is the creation of new social relations. By contrast, the Übermensch realises his power not in creative praxis but in the system of power relations, in the establishment of his domination over the masses. But even an absolute power over the masses cannot transform the Übermensch into a subject of history and culture. Through his alienation of creative-constructive activity he is intrinsically thrown back onto non-subjectivity.

    And there is still one more difference. If the new man is the concrete general form of the revolutionary individual then the Übermensch is the quintessence of the conformist petit-bourgeois masses over which he wants to erect his dominion.

    The nature of the new man, behind whom there was always a concrete personality, consists in the fact that his activity was fundamentally directed towards naming the social contradictions of Soviet reality in order to find an approach to solving them under the given circumstances. And he did all of this under conditions of a continual battle not only with openly internal and external enemies but also with the petit bourgeois just as much as with the Soviet bureaucracy. Nevertheless the new man was in a position to accomplish the cultural revolution of the 1920s; to carry out the industrialisation of the 1930s; to defeat world fascism in 1945; to be the first to fly into space in 1961; and to create a new international culture, a Soviet culture, during the decades of the USSR’s existence.

    The new man carried in himself the contradiction of his epoch, he ‘emerged out of it’, and expressed the future contradictions that he himself created. He – I am referring to convinced Bolsheviks, rather than dissidents, who wanted to work as teachers, physicians, agronomists amongst the peasants and workers – paid a high price for this, often that of his own life.

    The opposite of this life activity, the rejection of the principle of subjectivity, is in essence nothing other than the rejection of the idea of man as the creator of history and culture. But this objectively transforms the individual into a bourgeois philistine for whom the arena of the market has become organic.

    Fourth, the elimination of man as a personality. The modern system of total alienation only assigns man the role of a function. Therefore he exists not principally as a personality but as the bearer of one or another abstract sign: for example, a series of different numbers (bank or credit cards, insurance numbers, etc.), which he needs for his virtual existence on the internet.

    When in the nineteenth century the new liberalism clarified its positions and ideals the question was posed in Russian literature of the tragedy of the ‘superfluous person’. Russia’s zombie liberalism, reanimated now after two centuries, expresses this, unabashedly and cynically, in a different way: ‘man is superfluous’. In the economic sphere man is a function of capital and the total market. In politics he is no more than a unit of electoral plankton. In culture he is not an author but in the best case an interpreter of foreign texts or a private commentator of news.

    And all of this has been made into law: capital’s global hegemony is only capable of producing a private individual, an anonymous being alienated in form and content. As a rule, all of this drives the individual into reactionary- conservative forms of existence, transforms her/him into a bearer of alienation, an epidemic that is no less dangerous today than medieval plagues were.

    Fifth, the alienation of the individual from culture. Social practices that are alternatives to the world of alienation pose the question of an alternative cultural space. And this is the most contemporary problem for the left in the twenty-first century.

    The private individual today is becoming, on the one hand, ever more anonymised and, on the other, continually more dependent on the globalised networks of the market and bureaucracy. This unsolved contradiction becomes the most important condition for the development of social reality through the ‘globalisation of total alienation’. Through it the alienation of the individual from culture likewise becomes more total. In his quality of being a function the individual objectively begins himself to work at the reproduction of these networks and finally at the production of simulations of culture, for example in the case of gamers. In contrast to the ‘mass man’ of twentieth-century consumer culture, the private individual in the epoch of neoliberal globalisation becomes not only a bearer but also a producer of diverse cultural simulations. And if we consider that the production of mass media contents has been transformed into a locomotive of the world economy, and has also gradually become the dominant form of the modern global market, so too is there an objective growth in the significance of the consumer who works at the reproduction of this kind of business. In the end the consumption of simulated culture makes the life of people itself into a simulation.

    Sixth, the alienation of the individual from creative activity. The alienation of the active person from his/her own creative activity has increasingly become a paradox of contemporary capital, which prompts the growth of a so-called ‘creative class’. The dominance of ‘technologism’ gradually transforms the creative person into a function that services the orders of the market or of political institutions (thus the massive employment of talented workers in spheres of the production of simulations like advertising, public relations, financial operations, etc.).

    The modern human being thinks of creativity as something complete that has results, something that is developing and is aimed at changing the world. Yet at the same time the backward-looking forms of reality that dominate him are felt by him as transcendental, that is, not created by people; he accepts them as ‘natural’ and therefore not criticisable. This is the contradiction in which he now lives. His world view rests as a rule on the recognition of the prevailing conditions of alienation as an absolutely unchangeable reality that determines his existence but which in no way depends on him. Since because of his alienation from reality the individual cannot become a social-active subject he is deprived of the capacity to grasp the contradictions dialectically and to critically analyse them. These changes of culture, the result of the 25-year-long liberal reforms in Russia, are the caricatured and grotesque reflection of analogous problems in the West.

    The ideal of the new man as the subject of historical reconstruction was thus replaced by the petit bourgeois ideal of the philistine, which in essence is a comfortable and cozy existence that is market- and prestige-oriented in content.

    To be fair it should be said that the philistine tendency also existed in the USSR (Mayakovsky wrote a great deal about this). But what is most important is that post-Soviet regressive capitalism has cultivated it intensively and legitimated it intellectually and ethically.

    Breaking out of the world of alienation: challenges

    A cultural politics of the left ought to assume that the prevailing rules of the game determined by global capital are not something we should accept. We must and can say a decided ‘no’: first of all to the total commercialisation of human life in general and of culture in particular; second, we say ‘no’ to the private man and his alter ego, the individualism of the private property owner; third, we say ‘no’ to the annulation of subjectivity and to the philistinisation of man; fourth, we say ‘’no’ to the elimination of man as a personality; five, we say ‘no’ to the alienation of man from culture and creative activity.

    These imperatives would seem obvious (at any rate, they are obvious for the democratic left in Russia), but for much of the left in the West deciphering and transforming them into practical slogans proves difficult. This is because these imperatives would involve not just a renunciation of the method but also the practice of post-modernism, the recovery of grand narratives, and this not only in theory and politics but also in ideology, ethics, and aesthetics.1

    This presupposes definitiveness in our position on criteria of progress; and this means positions on good and bad, beauty and ugliness, definitiveness in questions of ethics and aesthetics. It is not about which picture corresponds to the criterion of progress and which does not. We have to convince people and society that criteria of progress exist and that we are proposing them but not imposing them.

    For many leftists such words seem antiquated and echoes of totalitarian consciousness. But without definitiveness in politics the left will always lose out to neoliberalism in questions of culture. Furthermore, in the wake of neoliberal politics we will also lose against the extreme right. They have a reactionary but positive position and to the mind of the majority who are so distant from the spirit of postmodernism every definiteness is better than none.

    When we speak about who would be the subject of the socialist alternative we have to pose another important question. On what basis is it possible today to gather the forces that could build an alternative to the globalisation of alienation? Might it be that the nation-state offers solutions here? This solution is increasingly becoming popular among conservatives. And here, in turn, it is important to remember some positive practices and lessons from the USSR. The principle of universalism was one of the most important linchpins of the three cornerstones of Soviet experiences: revolution, culture, and the resistance to fascism. Precisely from these three connected pillars of the Soviet heritage grew the great fraternity of peoples not only of our country but, and this is especially important, of the world as a whole. And finally the important question: on what basis can we organise the relations between diverse peoples with different cultures, religions, and customs? A dialogue is needed between all sides. Here a critical analysis of the past can contribute much to the present and the future.

    Look to the future through the analysis of the past

    It may be that this is why today in Russia, a country that brings together the contradictions of global capital under a burning lens, people are increasingly turning to an analysis of Soviet practice. Admittedly, in doing so different forces are looking for different things.

    We can perhaps discern three basic tendencies:

    • the Stalinist-imperial tendency;
    • the social-paternalist tendency;
    • the subjective-action-oriented tendency.

    The turn to the idea of the USSR is also connected to the fact that there is a historic precedence behind it whose logic of development, despite all its contradictions, raised society and the individual to put them at the centre of world history in the twentieth century. Today’s interest in things Soviet is, alongside nostalgia, also an attempt to build bridges to the future through a critical analysis of the past. This is not a matter of nostalgia but of a Renaissance, a critical research into Soviet experience, and, in the first place, cultural experience.

    Social creativity – breakthrough to culture

    One distinctive kind of provocation in such a discussion could be turning to the social and cultural practices in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. In this period the Stalinist deformations still played no determining role, and the germs of social emancipation, as well as the contradictions in the birth of a new world and culture, were relatively clearly visible. Similarly visible was the contradiction between the objective necessity of including the broad masses in the process of social reconstruction and the lack of the cultural potential needed for this.

    The resolution of this contradiction and the conjunction of the proletariat’s enthusiasm with culture were the objects of sharp discussions, which had already begun before the Revolution. Characteristic for the approach of the majority of the intelligentsia to resolving this contradiction was that the cultural level of the proletariat first had to be raised and that only then would it tackle the Revolution.

    The position of the Bolsheviks on this question was dialectical in the Marxist sense. Only through the direct inclusion of the revolutionary masses in the practice of social reconstructions could one produce in them an objective need for culture, in which process it would be important to tie this need closely with their material interests. An attempt to circumvent this, that is, the failure to include the masses in the resolution of these contradictions, would create the risk of collapse at the first cracks in the social reality.

    The need to include the revolutionary individual in the social restructuring produces in him the objective need for culture. This need was dictated by three circumstances. First, the need to materially rebuild the world, which had been destroyed and crippled by crises and by a recently ended war. Second, the endeavour to secure the political achievements that could be successfully defended in a difficult class struggle. Third, the task of understanding how one could rebuild the world in accordance with one’s own class interests. All of this transformed culture into an ineluctable necessity.

    The praxis of social transformation not only produced in the revolutionary individual the need for culture but also required that he/she live this culture, in the most comprehensive sense of the word. Thus the confirmation of the subjectivity of the revolutionary individual in this period was the consequence of the activity connected to the fundamental change of the social system and which it is fully justified to call ‘social creativity’. The individual him/herself created qualitatively new social relations in that he/ she removed the domination of the external powers of alienation (the power of the market, capital, the state, etc.).

    Therefore social creativity in the 1920s bore within it not only the logic of the solution of social contradictions but was also a form of the development of the personality of the revolutionary individual in all its wealth of concrete phenomena and potential. This experience of the USSR shows that the common praxis of changing the real world was not only an abstract idea (national, religious, political) but the material basis for the emergence of an authentic internationalism in Soviet history and the principle of universalism in Soviet culture.


    To summarise: Renouncing the subjective Being of man in history and culture means in reality the end of culture and history – and finally of man himself. At some point in his discussion with Gustav Janouch, Franz Kafka answered the question whether he thought man no longer had a part in creating the world (which he apparently no longer understood). Kafka replied, ‘You again misunderstand me. On the contrary, man has rejected his partnership and joint responsibility in the world’.2


    1. In the author’s view, postmodernism is the legitimation of the idea of negation of culture. As such it is the banner of the anti-human nature of a world built on the domination of capital’s global hegemony. The hegemony of capital and the totality of the market only allow the individual to fulfil the role of an anonymous market agent. The individual does not exist as a subject. Without a subject, however, there is also no personality, that is, no relations that make a person into a personality. But the essence of culture is precisely these relations. See Ludmilla Bulavka-Buzgalina, ‘Postsovetskaja real’nost’: prinuždeniek k mutcii kak imperative simuljativonogo bytija’, Alternativy, 2012, No. 2, pp. 97-98.
    2. Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, New York: New Directions, 2012, p. 126.

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