The Essence Of Time: A Study In Post-Marxism

Communism and fascism. Both were in many ways expressions of a similar discontent, a result of modernity’s growing pains in a time after the institutions of communal solidarity had either had their power destroyed or discredited (a process which is finally finished by WWI), but before technology had caught up enough to satisfy certain distracting indulgences. In addition, both were essentially expressions of ‘post-liberal’ socialist critique.

While there was certainly a heated divide between the two, even before Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, this was in many cases due to an overestimation of communism’s ability to level cultures, something which was present on both sides. While fascism was a misguided attempt at revitalization, communism was a misguided attempt at revolution. What the last century teaches us is that when it comes to revolution, liberalism is the only game that matters when the sun goes down. Both communist and fascist theory have been discredited and discarded. Russia’s official Communist Party is the twin brother of western neo-nazis, in that neither has seen any ideological development since the defeat of their forebears. What changes they do exhibit are often the result of unexplained compromise or just general qualitative degeneration. In their respective directions, they had essentially been taken to the limits of the imagination and found wanting.

While these ideologies are certainly modern in their formulation, they were distinct from liberalism, encapsulating their own separate political theories. As with anything illiberal, the underlying current of their appeal lay in some kind of truth concerning liberalism’s failings. As an archetype, ‘communism’ responded to social, rather than economic, failures. Rapid urbanization and industrialization, under the auspices of an open labor market in the age where there were no labor protections, involved no acknowledgement of the potentially damaging and atomization effects of this change, and thus no plans to mitigate them.

If Karl Marx had not adapted the socialist ideas of his day into a radical ideology, someone else would have. It is a shame that he became this archetype’s champion, however, due to the noxious nature of most of his ideas, the application of which left the largest bloodstain on the 20th century. I would argue, in fact, that a large part of the failure of explicitly reactionary movements can be put down to communism and fascism enticing many bright malcontents, who otherwise would have been anti-modernist proponents.

What are communists up to nowadays? It would be wrong to assert that they have not undergone any kind of ideological development since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the extent to which this development has tried to interface with hard facts about human nature and modernity itself remains an open question. To get some sense of it, I want to take a look at the lengthy official manifesto of Essence of Time (Суть Времени), a Russian movement founded by political scientist Sergei Kurginyan in 2011. While today’s Russian Communist Party runs on a snooze-worthy nostalgia, Essence of Time is a dynamic fringe group with a devoted following and is pursuing a line of ideological development rather than stagnation.

Four principles ground Essence of Time: Avowed revanchism, a desire to discover the exact reasons behind the collapse of the Soviet Union, a desire to restore all that has been lost, and a conviction to pursue the above lines with passion, reason, and will. These are somewhat vague principles, and thus it would best serve the purposes of this essay to first discuss what innovations Essence has made to Marxist theory, and why it may represent a ‘post-Marxist’ type of communism, and then to point out its blunders in understanding, as well as its unwillingness to face the full reality of the last hundred years, and indeed, the last three hundred.

We might initially point out the positive elements of the movement. Firstly, it has rejected Marxist internationalism in much the same vein as the post-Lenin Soviet leaders, sniping at potential émigrés who refuse to commit themselves to either fixing Russia or dying with her. This sense of grounding is always welcome against the backdrop of the sterilized and utopian ideals of global revolution. You could also point to the theme of ‘something special lost’ and the movement’s glorification of the past as a distinctively illiberal trait. Liberals (the avowed sort) almost never regret leaving the past behind. In addition, they side with the sociologist Max Weber over Karl Marx when it comes to the issue of giving society itself a character which stands apart from the mere means of production.

While he recognized the crucial importance of the artificial material environment itself and the laws, governing within it, Weber tried to convince Marx’s supporters to consider society as another independent factor that is not a material, but that is rather a social environment, which is just as artificial as the material environment, and is created by man and governed by its own laws, both adopted by man and ruling over man.

While it makes the cardinal error of attributing ‘artificiality’ to this social environment, as if it can only exist in an artificial state, it is laudable to at the very least depart from Marx’s evidently false reductionism.

The final element of the manifesto that has considerable merit is attention to history concerning how the bourgeoisie emerged from feudalism to displace the old order, transcending what had been the limits of the vaisya class. The piece also explains how the divide in affluence between vaisya and brahmin/kshatriya set up a narrative of figures like Robespierre serving as champions of the poor, even while today’s ruling class live far more indulgently than did their predecessors.

However, the author seems ignorant of certain special factors which led to the regression of the castes, namely the Black Death’s effects on labor and feudal cowardice in the face of peasant rebellions.

Throughout the entire manifesto, I was somewhat astonished by how useless Marx was to it. Elements of his theory are repeated, but almost as a historical curiosity that has lost its usefulness. Gone were the key hallmarks of Marxist thinking, particularly in terms of class conflict. In fact, while the document at one point indulges in a rather embarrassing appeal to the fear of Nazism (like a plastic skeleton popping out on the ghost train), it practically approaches the issue of class from the standpoint of co-operation (a typically fascist viewpoint) and strangely alludes to enthroning ‘scientists’ in the place of  a despised ‘intelligentsia’, playing up Essence’s utopian view of education as a wellspring of goodness.

“We admit that since science has become a fully-fledged productive force, in the 21st century the place of the intelligentsia as a social layer is taken by the cognitariat, as a class possessing all rights that result from science’s new status.”

I wonder if the author is aware of the blurred lines in the west between science and the intelligentsia. We are now, after all, assured by my-first-chemistry-kit educators that “Who enjoys a fleshlight, in the cold moonlight?” is a stimulating conundrum on the level of Goldbach’s Conjecture, but I digress. Because Marx feels so tacked on, the manifesto actually tries to justify to itself why he is necessary.

To understand the fate of capitalism, the notion of legitimacy must be introduced to Marxism. This involves theoretical and practical political challenges that are to be overcome by combining Marx and Weber. We will lose Marxism otherwise (which will lead to an essential analytical and political disorientation), and we will not be able to analyze the key issue of the twenty-first century.

I would probably be somewhat disorientated, too, if the founder of my school of thought proved to be completely irrelevant to its development in the new millennium, but this is the pitfall of Marx. A lot of what he predicted never came to pass, because he had no handle on human nature. He simply believed Rousseau, and then wondered why perfect mankind wasn’t hurrying up on its promise of equality. While the manifesto acknowledges Marxist theory has not been comprehensive for a long time, I would say it has been completely unnecessary for even longer. What scarce truths came out of Marx had already been said by men far greater than him, long before.

Essence’s manifesto does provide an accurate account of the differences between Russian capitalism and the capitalism that developed in the west. The manifesto notes that under the Soviet system, there weren’t very many savers, compared to the West. People could not easily accumulate wealth, and so when it came to the auctioning of Russia’s assets, a very different, criminally-based capitalism emerged. The only ones who could afford to purchase these assets were mafias who could pool their funds, illegal speculators, or thetsekhoviks (shadow entrepreneurs) who operated on the border of legality. Regular entrepreneurs simply had no infrastructure to emerge in post-Soviet Russia, and so the kinds of people who ended up with assets were particularly reprobate individuals. Essence adherents believe this was a deliberate attempt to turn Russia into the equivalent of a pirate economy, knowing that such economies do not last long.

The Trust C.N. (Capitalism Now!) masters did not nurture a normal, imperfect capitalism as found in other nations. Instead, they fostered a criminal monster, a devouring pseudo-class. They managed to nurture it. The class started to devour everything, on the principle of “the appetite comes with eating”, and it has done so for the last twenty years. […] This wasn’t the will to build capitalism, rather the will to destroy Russia through criminal pseudo-capitalism, by transferring all functions of the ruling subject to this criminal pseudo-capitalism and transforming the state into a criminal monster.

Irony seems to be lost on the organization when it condemns this criminal economy by declaring it to be a radical break from the past.

This rejection of the past was complimented by a very specific image of a positive future. With every new round of catastrophe, it became clearer that the image of this future was more materialistic and anti-spiritual than ever before. And in this future, instead of “heaven on earth,” there are many small and tiny heavenly morsels, such as jeans, processed meats and the like.

If I swap out “jeans” and “processed meats” for “pensions” and “public healthcare”, this statement could have been uttered by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn concerning the Soviet Union! There is something to be said about continuity from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union, but the cognitive dissonance required to ignore the profound and bloody break with history that defined this period is staggering. Essence relies on the lame excuse of ‘time constraints’ to justify the evils of what Lenin did to Russia. I’m not buying it.

The manifesto declares categorically that it rejects the concept of an end of history, but then contradicts this by proclaiming a belief in progress. These two concepts are attached at the hip. One cannot speak of progress without positing an endpoint. You could walk for miles and miles, but without a destination, you have made no progress at all. Essence sets up a bizarre conspiracy theory about an alliance between phantom post-moderns and anti-moderns (using the example of the Deep State’s support of Islamic fundamentalists) that has as its intent the creation of a center-periphery global model. This, of course, implies the Deep State wants ISIS to succeed, when in reality, it wants nobody to succeed. As long as nobody succeeds, chaos reigns, and various interests can effectively exploit the situation.

Apparently though, this center-periphery will be the death of precious progress.

What is informative is that the manifesto draws a distinction between communism and liberalism with regards to beliefs about the evil of man. We know that reactionaries view man as fundamentally and irreversibly flawed, hence the need for authority. The manifesto correctly states that liberals believe evil is not really a fundamental factor of mankind, that it instead can be “properly organized”, via various mechanisms of liberty. It then gives the communist view, that man is evil, but that evil must be eradicated through the creation of the Soviet “new man”.

It’s compelling. Stupid, but compelling. Ultimately, this view is just another flavor of utopianism that is running away from the responsibility to face up to evil, acknowledge it, and chain it to spare society of its ravages.

What’s frustrating is that because the document is quite clear-eyed on the pre-modern era, it gives Tradition its due. See how it speaks of Tradition as a binding force, contra liberalism, that brings communities together.

Tradition as the soul of a traditional society (recalling Pushkin’s “habit — the states’ soul”) gives rise to collectivism or communality. And vice-versa, the destruction of communality is the dismantling of traditional society.

Nowhere is there an ounce of venom for feudal society. The piece simply glosses over the glaring question of why this force for communality could not have been renovated without revolution and mayhem. This paragraph is the killer:

Figuratively speaking, traditional society is thrown into the furnace of the locomotive known as the Modern project. While traditional society exists, there is a furnace that keeps burning. You can keep throwing additional portions of this society into it, but when there is nothing left of traditional society, the furnace grows cold and the locomotive stops moving.

Traditional society here is portrayed as a fuel source, something useful and full of vital energy, which is sacrificed on the altar of consumer capitalism as it encroaches upon ancient ways of life (modern China and India are given as an examples). Again however, one could just as easily point to communism engaging in exactly the same burning of fuel, especially since the manifesto mentions China.

It is a vivid imagining of the concept of the Afterglow coined by Peter Hitchens, namely that Modernity survives on borrowed time, on the crumbling ruins of Traditional remnants, and once they are gone, comfortable bourgeois life will collapse. Essence states that this dynamic will lead, nay is already leading, to the exhaustion of the West, which will be eclipsed by Asia, but goes on to say that Asia will in short order also exhaust itself. So in devouring Tradition, civilization signs its death warrant and rusts in an outland. The solution? Something akin to a neo-Soviet model apparently. Never once does the manifesto even entertain the possibility of getting more of this precious fuel, and not throwing it into a furnace next time. Why build a devouring furnace when you can build a garden? Maybe gardens are too oppressive.

The Essence of Time is an interesting movement, I will give it that. There is something attractive about its naked determination and revanchism. Indeed, a reactionary might see a little something of himself in its conviction that something deeply disordered is afoot, especially in his own context. However, despite demoting Marx from leading man to sound-effects guy, the stage production of communism is still mired in a profound immaturity regarding the future’s relationship with the past, as well as communism’s history of failure. At least they aren’t attacking Tradition anymore. Maybe that’s a step in the right direction.

(I highly recommend Iulian Bretonescu’s essay on Soviet-era nostalgia in relation to this piece)

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  1. If the problem as they’ve posed it is the correct one, then Marxism won’t be able to furnish a solution at either a theoretical or a practical level. The Marxist category of “false consciousness” could be profitably applied to these guys, who don’t seem to actually be doing what they think they’re doing.

    1. I would agree. Relates back to that old concept of ‘occult motivators’, that while their head might say one thing, something else is going on behind the scenes. I’m just amazed they have this much dissonance even while they write quite eloquently on some tough truths about post-Soviet life.

  2. Not to be no-fun-at-all, but it sounds like warmed-over Habermas

  3. Reminiscent of the, Knights Templar of the Proletariat stuff. We tend to see this sort of stuff from the Slavs.

  4. “feudal cowardice in the face of peasant rebellions”

    This has to be the most reactionary quote I’ve ever heard. You get the cake, Mark.

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