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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Mythology and revolution

There is a beautiful sister and an ugly sister. We know such tales from childhood.

There is the allure of the beautiful female face that seems to summon us. And there are the hissing snakes for hair and the gorgon features of the face that repulses us.

In his 1848 article for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung about the June revolution of 1848, Marx gives us a story of the beautiful sister and the ugly sister in terms of revolutions. The part played by the beautiful sister is the universal revolution that overthrows the signs of the old order. This revolution is conducted under the sign of the universal family – except it is no longer a family with a father at the head of it. No, this is the family of brothers, of fraternity. But this revolution conceals within it an undermining fact. Just as Cinderella does all the chores that allow her sisters to appear beautiful, so, too, does the proletariat do all the chores that allow for the beautiful overflow of fraternal feelings. When the proletariat gets tired of playing this role, it rises up. This is the revolution of the ugly – the ugly sister of the beautiful revolution. The story shifts, at this point. Cinderella’s godmother does not turn her into the beautiful woman she secretly is. Rather, the godmother – a chthonic which – takes Cinderella’s place.

“The February revolution was the beautiful [schöne] revolution, the revolution of universal sympathies, because the contradictions which erupted in it against the monarchy were still undeveloped and harmoniously slept next to one another, because the social struggle which formed their background had only achieved an airy existence, an existence in phrases, in words. The June revolution is the ugly revolution, the repulsive [abstoßende] revolution, because the phrases have given place to the real thing, because the republic itself has bared the head of the monster by knocking off the crown which shielded and concealed it.”

The repulsive face of the monster - who does it belong to? The phrase about the repulsive revolution suggests that the monster is the working class – a monster concealed by the old order. But it is more than the working class. The proletariat is the product of the bourgeois system. Thus, in the house of the father, the monster is concealed – and when the brothers rise up to destroy the father – a story of Freud’s, remember – what do they find? Father was a bluebeard. But they, the brothers, far from being innocent, have merely used the crown to conceal their own work.

The monster’s head comes back in the preface to the first, German edition of Capital. Here, the same unveiling takes place. Again, what the monster is, and who is responsible for it, becomes cloudy – is the monster the system or the product of the system?

Where capitalist production has been completely assimilated by us, for example, in the actual factories, the conditions are much worse than in England, as the counterweight of factory regulations is missing. In all other spheres as, besides, in the whole of continental Europe, not only the development of capitalist production hurts us, but the lack of its development as well. Next to modern distresses, a whole series of inherited distresses also oppress us, springing from the vegetative continuation of archaic, obsolete modes of production, with their train of obsolte social and political relations. We not only suffer from the living, but the dead. Le mort saisit le vif!

In comparison to England, social statistics in Germany and elsewhere on the continent are in a miserable state. Yet they lift the veil just enough in order to allow us to see the Medusa head behind them.”

Who would want to see the Medusa head? Here, there is – or there is supposed to be - a crack between the mythological and the revolutionary. To lift the veil and gaze upon the repulsive medusa is the first step, for the revolutionary, in the long process of sezing control of the social conditions that produced the Medusa.
And yet, is the mythological so easily tossed aside? Reading the history of the socialist movement, it is impressive, to me, that the greatest actors in that movement seem to come up with the worst readings of Marx. Instead of emancipating themselves by way of the ugly sister’s strategy, they stand, rooted to the spot, by the sheer power of the system, and find ways to deal with it.

Meanwhile, those, like Lenin, who did understand that the system was ineradicably rotten, end up instituting capitalism by way of the state. Lenin’s NEP is the only live fact in communism – its heir is the policy of the Chinese communist party.

“Perseus needed a cap of invisibility to pursue the monster. We pull the cap of invisibility deep over our eyes and ears, in oder to be able to deny the existence of the monster.”

Every day, the newspaper bring us evidence of the existence of the monster, and every day, we pull our cap more deeply over our eyes and ears. Today, in the business section of the NYT, there is a story marveling over the docility with which the people of Lithuania have allowed the government, on purpose, to slash spending and sink the Gross Domestic Product by 15 percent. Why did the government do this?

“But Mr. Kubilius and his team [the president of Lithuania]say that with a budget deficit of 9 percent of G.D.P., a currency fixed to the euro and international bond markets unwilling to lend to Lithuania, the government had no choice but to show the world it could impose its own internal devaluation by cutting public spending, restoring competitiveness and reclaiming the good will of the bond markets.”

Restoring competitiveness, as one finds later in the article, has a correlation with the booming business of suicide:

“The psychological toll has been immense. Suicides have increased in a country where the suicide rate of 35 per 100,000 is already one of the world’s highest, local experts say.

According to figures collected by the Youth Psychological Aid Center, telephone calls to its hot line from people who said they were on the verge of committing suicide nearly doubled last year to 1,400, from 750.”

Meanwhile, the electorate awaits… for something.

In the reception area of the bank’s headquarters, bankers laughed and drank beer from a well-stocked bar as rock music played in the background.
It is a far remove from the soup kitchen at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Vilnius, where 500 people a day line up for a free meal of soup and Lithuanian pancakes.

Mecislovas Zukauskas, 88, a retired electrician, has lived through the devastations of World War II, the Soviet occupation and, most recently, the death of his wife. He is taking his pension cut in stride.
“The government does what it wants to do,” he said. “We can do nothing.”

Can we really do nothing? And if we agree to that, what was the beautiful revolution for, anyway? Questions that no NYT reporter asks. A former New York Herald reporter, however, would remember that the point of revolution is not, finally, to end up in the good graces of the bond market.


Anonymous said...

On the morning of June 23rd, 1848, it would seem that much of Paris is in the hands of the people, barricades extend across the city. That afternoon, the executive commission bestow military powers to the Minister of War, General Cavaignac. The first battle would break out later in the day at porte Saint-Denis.

Victor Hugo, who was not an innocent bystander during the June insurrection, wrote this in Choses Vues out that about that first confrontation:

La garde nationale, plus irritée que intimidée, se rua sur la barricade au pas de course. En ce moment une femme parut sur la crête de la barricade, une femme jeune, belle, échevelée, terrible. Cette femme, qui était une femme publique, releva sa robe jusqu'à la ceinture et cria aux gardes nationaux, dans cette affreuse langue de lupanar qu'on est toujours forcé de traduire: - Lâchez, tirez, si vous l'osez, sur le ventre d'une femme! - Ici. la chose devient effroyable. La garde nationale n'hésita pas. Un feu de peloton renversa la misérable. Elle tomba en poussant un grand cri. Il y eut un silence d'horreur dans la barricade et parmi les assaillants. Tout à coup une seconde femme apparut. Celle-ci était plus jeune et plus belle encore; c'était presque un enfant, dix-sept ans à peine. Quelle profonde misère! C'était encore une fille publique. Elle leva sa robe, montra son ventre, et cria: - Tirez, brigands! On tira. Elle tomba trouée de balles sur le corps de la première. Ce fut ainsi que cette guerre commença.

Daniel Stern also describes this "scene" in Histoire de la Révolution de 1848. (Daniel Stern is of course a woman, Marie de Flavigny, Comtesse d'Agoult, the mother of Cosima Wagner.) Her description is a little different from Hugo. She writes of a woman at the barricade holding up a flag, a red flag with black borders on which has been stitched, Ateliers nationaux, 4e arrondissment, 5e section.

Une femme pred le drapeau, les chevaeux épars, les bras nus, vêtue d'une robe de couleur éclatante, elle semble défier la mort. A cette vue, les gardes nationaux hésitent à faire feu; ils crient à la jeune fille de se retirer; elle reste intrépide; elle provoque less assaillants du geste et de la voix; un coup de feu part; on le voit chanceler et s'affaisser sur elle-même. Mais une autre femme s'élance soudain à ces côtés; d'une main elle soutien le corps sanglant de sa compagne, de l'autre elle lance des pierres aux assaillants. Une nouvelle décharge retentit; la voici qui tombe à son tour sur le cadavre qu'elle tenait embrassé.


roger said...

Amie, Marx knew the Comtesse d'Agoult - and, you will remember, I've done quite a few posts about her myself. His friend, at the time, Herwegh, was the connector.

Hugo's account is so gripping, and yet of course - why should we accept that these were fille publique? But the gesture is as old as Gorgo - and I wish I'd known this story before I wrote my Gorgo post, a long time ago: http://limitedinc.blogspot.com/2007/05/death-in-eyes.html

Anonymous said...

LI, I do know that Marx knew Comtesse d'Agoult. I must have missed your posts about her as I'm ashamed to say I don't remember them. Damn. I'll have to look them up.
And yes, what would lead one to believe that the women were both fille publique? Mythology? And right in the midst of a passage describing "revolution" and insurrection - a nakedness of body and speech, the women raising their clothes and speaking the affreuse langue de lupanar- that Hugo has to translate, something he could it would seem neither look at or hear, abide "as such". He is not the only one, far from it.
What still frightens?


Anonymous said...

Oh damn, how could I have forgotten this, which I did read



roger said...

Ah, Madame D'Agoult floats into and out of my posts last year. Probably I should have devoted a whole bunch of posts to her alone! Certainly she has sunk into my consciousness of 1848. I rather hope that the rumor about her and Herwegh isn't true, although it is a little late to warn her about what a shit Herwegh is. That man was the reason Herzen never wanted to meet Marx - plus the fight with Bakunin.

It strikes me as truly interesting - what a small world - that Nietzsche knew so many people who Marx knew.