Skip to main content Start of main content

An Issue of Organisation: Chto Delat?

The platform Chto delat? (What is to be done?) was founded in early 2003 in St Petersburg by a group of artists, critics, philosophers and writers from St Petersburg, Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod with the goal of merging political theory, art and activism. Since then Chto delat? has been producing works in video, installations, public actions, radio programmes and artistic examinations of urban space, and publishes an English-Russian newspaper on issues central to activist culture, with a special focus on the relationship between the repoliticisation of Russian intellectual culture and the broader international context. These newspapers are usually produced in the context of collective initiatives such as art exhibitions or conferences. In what follows, Chto delat? Member Dmitry Vilensky talks to the philosopher and art theorist Gerald Raunig about the collective’s activities. 01

Gerald Raunig:

The name of your collective – Chto delat? – seems to come from the title of that old Vladimir Ilyich Lenin text What Is to Be Done? (1902), in which Lenin raises some ‘burning questions for our movement’.02 It is an essay from the start of what I call the ‘Lenin discourse’. These two words stand here for a discursive machine that emerged in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, and which developed possible models of radical politics. This machine by no means was defined unequivocally, not even in 1917, but drew instead from a multitude of positions, which explains the flexibility and versatility of Lenin’s own writings and political position. Within a diverse field of socialdemocratic, socialist, communist, individualist, anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist positions continually opening up to new fields of reference, there seemed to be endless possibilities for inventing and recomposing revolutionary machines. If Slavoj Zizek’s book on Lenin, Revolution at the Gates (2002), represents an attempt to ‘repeat Lenin’ – specifically the Lenin that has vanished behind the proliferating dogmas of Marxism-Leninism that appeared from the 1920s onwards – I would call more concisely for repeating the ‘Lenin discourse’: the discourse that arose in Europe between the two revolutions of 1905 and 1917 (not exclusively in Lenin’s own writings), and which articulates the debates of the Second International on social democracy and the unions; on the relationship between socialist and anarchist movements; on Bolsheviks and Mensheviks; on suitable forms of organisation, the avant-garde party and the dictatorship of the proletariat; on the relationship between spontaneous actions and cadre-like organisation; on proletarian and political mass strikes – all of which would be worth ‘repeating’ today, or at least purposely not repeating. I see the name of your group as consciously repeating the old title of a Lenin text from this perspective.

Dmitry Vilensky:

First I should say that it is quite a common misunderstanding in the West to link the question ‘Chto delat?’ directly and exclusively to Lenin. In Russia very few remember this text, but everyone remembers Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s book of the same title from 1863, because it is still in the basic school-reading programme and it has deeply influenced Russian culture and politics. For us the reference to Chernyshevsky is much more important, because at a certain moment in the late 1990s we found ourselves thrown back to the period of primitive accumulation of capital and confronted with new forms of labour slavery. In this situation, the development of left-wing movements paradoxically was comparable to the situation of the first Russian Marxist cells in the mid-nineteenth century. And Chernyshevsky’s novel was a brilliant attempt at writing some sort of a manual on how to construct emancipatory collectives and make them sustainable within a hostile society.

But you are right, we cannot simply skip over the reference to Lenin, because it really is an important text. I agree with Zizek in his evaluation of Lenin’s article, because it problematises the relations between the spontaneity of the working-class struggle and the necessity for organisation. 03 That is why Chto delat? is constructed around issues of production of knowledge in the form of a self-organized educational process.

It also is important to emphasise that the question ‘What is to be done?’ is clearly identified with the Left. It means that we admit that this or that historical situation must be changed, but before acting we ask questions and develop a field for intellectual practice. Right-wing politics on the other hand normally starts with the question ‘Who is guilty?’. Finally, the name of the group was a means of representing our fidelity to a certain tradition – in order to show exactly which side we are standing on, to clarify our position in the Russian and the international situation, which, to certain degree, helps to establish the space of a ‘common’ that can be shared by anyone who still is interested in such debates and practices.

GR: Let me add one more point. You are aware that ‘What is to be done?’ also became one of the leitmotifs of documenta 12 (2007). I know that this is quite a leap from political theory and practice to the field of art, but in a way I think impossible leaps and links between politics and art are one of the specific qualities of your group. What is your attitude towards the adoption of ‘What is to be done?’ by documenta? Is it just another unreflecting and fashionable reappropriation of leftist concepts, or do you find some positive aspects in the way they forced the leitmotif onto the pages of a large number of publications, including reactionary ones?

DV: Right now we have many examples where the knowledge developed within historical and contemporary emancipatory movements is being hijacked. I think that the curators of documenta 12, right before the exhibition started, became aware of the relation between this question and the issue of education. Unfortunately, as far as I know, they never made any reference to another important text, this one by Paulo Freire and Adriano Nogueira: Que Fazer. Teoria e Prática Em Educação Popular (What Is to Be Done: Theory and Practice in Popular Education, 1989). This problematic was under discussion outside the institutional framework as well as within established academia (at Goldsmiths College in London, for example). Because of this triple genealogy (Chernyshevsky-Lenin-Freire), the question ‘What is to be done?’ necessarily refers to a radical education of the oppressed. When the documenta 12 curators adopted this question, they did so in order to Legitimise the very limited idea of the educational character of the aesthetic experience itself, separating it from any real political implementation and therefore changing the actual meaning of the term. So from my point of view the exhibition was, despite its good intentions, ‘as culinary as ever’, as Brecht would say – and the inclusion of a chef as one of the artists somehow made this explicit. 04

But we should also ask a slightly different and more serious question: why are so few cultura institutions today constructing their legitimation through emancipatory or revolutionary rhetoric? We have no doubt that those which do so clearly understand themselves as representative structures of a new bourgeoisie, but the most interesting thing is that from the beginning of the 1990s these sectors of the creative class started to understand themselves as a revolutionary class, as a subject of history with enough power to transform both culture and society at large. They are a perfect product of the so-called ‘cultural turn’, and they push the results of the culturalisation of politics to another level that is consistent with the past. How should we react and oppose this claim?

Here we can return again to Lenin and his polemic with Karl Kautsky. Let me quote Zizek here:

[…]in Kautsky, there is no space for politics proper, just the combination of the social (working class and its struggle, from which intellectuals are implicitly EXCLUDED) and the pure neutral classless, a-subjective knowledge of these intellectuals. In Lenin, on the contrary, ‘intellectuals’ themselves are caught in the conflict of IDEOLOGIES (i.e. the ideological class struggle), which is unsurpassable. 05

So this is not just the case of documenta 12, but many other art-related projects too – radical thinking and aesthetics are tamed into the ‘progressive’ politics of the institutions of power.

And here we should remember a very important warning by Walter Benjamin from 1940:

Progress as pictured in the minds of social memocrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in human ability and knowledge). Second, it was something boundless (in keeping with an infinite perfectibility of humanity). Third, it was considered inevitable – something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course. Each of these assumptions is controversial and open to criticism. But when the chips are down, criticism must penetrate beyond these assumptions and focus on what they have in common. The concept of mankind’s historical progress cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogenous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must underlie any criticism of the concept of progress itself. 06

I think that the way you relate revolutionary machines and art machines is very challenging, because it points directly to the possibility of breaking this ‘straight or spiral course’ of time, and introducing a revolutionary idea of time based on ruptures. And don’t forget that Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus (1920) also occupied a central position in documenta 12.

What I really like about the new ‘revolutionary’ bourgeoisie is that they are the last group in today’s society who are open to discussion and critique, and the quarrel is happening on the same terrain and in the same language as Benjamin’s polemics against the social democrats or Lenin’s against Kautsky… The biggest problem of the Left is that very often the power of the marketplace, like the power of authority, pretends not to speak at all and escapes from any discursive procedure, hiding behind money’s mediation. I think the biggest danger of neo liberalism is that it implements the economisation of everything and establishes a space where there is nothing to talk about – like the hegemonic space of contemporary art, where words are just ornaments to the dealer’s contracts. The only way to break away from this situation is totry to repeat the ‘politics of truth’ that Alain Badiou proposes – and to undermine the hegemonic knowledge by opening up the origins of this knowledge to the culture of the oppressed. In this sense the experiences of Lenin’s politics are important to study again and again.

GR: Heroic words… On a more serious note, I don’t think either of us is that interested in the realms of the art market or the creative class, but instead in certain overlaps between artistic and (micro- and macro-) political practices. So, speaking about them – and maybe also about anti-hegemonic experiences – it is often said that recent social movements, such as the anti-globalisation movement, became possible precisely in the historical situation that resulted from the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and that only then new ways of rethinking communism and rewriting Marxism became possible. How does this model work in the Russian situation today, where on the one hand there is even more need for social change, and on the other for not forgetting or suppressing the Stalinist legacy – knowing that you cannot smoothly connect our early twenty-first century with the ‘Lenin discourse’ from a hundred years ago or the ‘Chernyshevsky discourse’ from 1850?

DV: I think that one can never ‘smoothly connect to Lenin’, regardless of wherever or whenever one may be. The collapse of the Soviet Union was made possible in many ways by the general weakness of the Left all over the world. Chto delat? is collectively working right now on a big installation and a few new films on perestroika as a missed opportunity, and we have already gathered important research materials that give revealing insight into its history. The shocking discovery for me was the ease with which capital managed to establish its power in a situation where there was very limited popular support for capitalist developments, and there was actually a broad movement that wanted to reconsider the idea of socialism, to rebuild it (perestroit) rather than scrap it. How did it happen that in just a few years capitalism took over people’s dreams and began to dictate the political situation to the extent that they did not even protest thedrastic worsening of the living standards in the late 1980s?

The historical narrative of what happened in the late 1980s needs to be seriously revised. We should finally recognise that despite remarkable people’s uprisings for a new definition of democracy and socialism in the Eastern bloc, the Western world was almost unable to participate in this process; the whole development of the situation was sold out to the most abhorrent right-wing politicians – Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl – who transformed the process of perestroika into a neo-liberal, globalist project. So theissue is not who is guilty – whether this was the result of the betrayal of Eastern bloc intelligentsia or the weakness of the Western Left – the issue is about recognising thematerial conditions of this situation and its history. The powerful appearance of the alter-globalisation movement has happened as an answer to the urgency of these issues.

I think that now, with the strong growth of the anti-authoritarian left after 1968, the process of de-Stalinisation of the New Left is over. And maybe it is time now to stop this paranoia of power, discipline and organisation, and think these three terms anew – not in the form of a co ordination of loosely organised affinity groups, but as something with a more concrete form. I would say, and I don’t know if you agree with me or not, thattoday’s Left is trapped in the logicof social struggle and the fetishisation of spontaneity. There is a widespread inability to conceive and build any sustainable and efficient revolutionary machine whose impact on society would be comparable to the old saturatedmodels of the party, the trade union or the people’s front.

It is even impossible to use the word ‘discipline’ today because it sounds terrible to any of the New ‘hedonist’ Left. What? Discipline? Ascesis? What are you talking about? When I use that word I am accused of being a Leninist-Trotskyist or something similar. Let’s look at the common misunderstanding of ascesis: most people think it is something that takes away the joy of life, torturing your body. But the main character of Chernyshev sky’s novel is the ascetic Rachmetov, and looking at him we can see that ascesis is something different: it is about excess, abundance of force and the joy of permanently overcoming borders; it is a form of discipline that helps one to realise one’s task; it is an exercise in concentration and enjoyment of one’s strength, opposed to passivity or resignation. Ascesis doesn’t contradict the discourse of desire but brings it to another, more radical and sophisticated level. However, very few people are ready to think about it in this way. Artists know these feelings very well because they are literally faced with the organic spontaneity of material (it does not matter if it is blank paper, stone, canvas, video tape or any other), occupying the position of an external force that should make a form out of that material. So I absolutely agree with Alain Badiou when he writes, in relation to the New Left politics and movement, that ‘The solution of the problem in the long term will be the invention of a new form of immanent discipline in the popular camp. That will be the end of the long weakness of the popular camp after the success – but also the failure – of the form of the party.’ 07

GR: There seem to be certain problems in this analogy between the artist as an external force and a New Left politics.

DV: No, no, no – I use the relation between artist and the material as an example to illustrate the notion of self-discipline. It has nothing to do with politics. Of course the relation between people involved in political struggle and looking for a new form of organisation is very different.

GR: But what puzzles me is that you are so fast in closing the phase of anti-authoritarianism associated with the ‘new social movements’ and their micro-politics during the 1970s in order to move on to another era of organisation. I am not referring here to the excess of violence in state socialism – if you look at the ongoing forms of patriarchal and closure-oriented practices in Western leftist movements of the last forty years, it sometimes looks like there had never been something like 1968, the second-wave feminist movement from the 1960s and 70s or the micro-political practices of the 1970s. On the one hand, as a consequence of this, I think you need both new organisation (i.e. new institutions, ‘monster institutions’, the long breath of instituting) 08and a constant struggle against structuralisation. On the other hand, I don’t really see any exaggerated fetishisation of spontaneity. But, anyway, it is interesting to see how you reintroduce your anti-authoritarian hedonism through the back door, using a concept of ascesis which reminds me very much of the late Michel Foucault. However, I think it is highly problematic to transfer this concept of ascesis to the collective level. Historically speaking, there seems to be a repetition of the heroic (especially in Badiou’s writings). Is this repetition necessary? What is the difference – if any – to historical modes of the heroic?

DV: You are right, hierarchical relations still are present in different Left movements and many efforts must be made to fight them. But for me, as a discourse, it is definitely exhausted. It is not something worth discussing here.

Your question about the repetition of historical modes of the heroic is very important for current political practices, and it is a shame that this discussion has become taboo today. You are right in pointing out that the growing interest in Badiou’s philosophy is a sign that the situation may soon change. I can only speak about my personal and very special relation to these issues. I don’t think that we should simply consider any form of heroism as something obsolete or as totalising behaviour. Outside the very sophisticated and advanced world of contemporary power there are many people who have nothing – no power, no representation, no money – people who are not just oppressed, but repressed in a very old-fashioned and brutal way. And when they claim their equality, it is already a heroic act. What else could it be? Look at the activists at Ungdomhuset in Copenhagen before the final police raid in October 2007, Iranian students, anti-Putin activists in Russia and many other examples – what do we call it? Can we ignore these experiences today by saying that they are not interesting for us because they chose an old-fashioned mode of direct confrontation with power? Their actions are not just the result of their will – they were somehow over-determined by the aggressive nature of the power that left no other choice for them. And it shows that even today, in our selfish and hedonist times, some people still believe that there are values that are more important than mere life in misery, and fight against it, risking their health and their lives. I think it is very important to reflect on this new form of the heroic, outside of any mode of totalising archaic power. I would say that new forms of heroism can be found in a tradition of generic human will to be free and equal, and not in a power of archaic narratives such as family, nation or state. So it might be more about courage than heroism. That is what Badiou argues in his latest book, De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom? (The Meaning of Sarkozy, 2007).

I agree with you when you suggest that we need to both think about new institutions and lead a constant struggle against structuralisation, but I can’t imagine how both can happen simultaneously. The issue of self-critique and permanent becoming (like a permanent revolution) is important, but I think that it could happen when this or that position is somehow temporary ‘fixed’ or ‘structured’ through the organisational procedure. But the procedure that is based on a certain principle should be somehow open for further change, for further ruptures – maybe something like this could work as a model?

GR: There you end up again with a linear idea that starts in a fantasised ‘outside’ of ‘power’, imagining a new kind of macro-organisation – and only then turns to the micro-questions. Maybe this problematic offers a good access point into the video Angry Sandwichpeople or In Praise of Dialectics (2005) in which Chto delat? tries to repeat the ‘praise of dialectics’ from Brecht’s play ‘Die Mutter’ (‘The Mother’, 1930-31). What does the repetition of Brecht’s hopeful phrase ‘It will not stay like it is’ mean today, and what is the difference between the workers in ‘Die Mutter’ and the sandwich-board people of seventy years later?

DV: This piece emerged from an internal group discussion on how it might be possible to make an artistic statement in memory of the centennial anniversary of the first Russian revolution of 1905. (Brecht’s ‘Die Mutter’ is based on Maxim Gorky’s novel of the same name, a cult book in 1905.)

We decided to examine the potential for a new anti-bourgeois subjectivity, how this subjectivity might emerge, and which problems this emergence might involve. We had already worked with sandwich-board people in 2003. We made an action in the winter of 2003 called Stop the Machine!, and shot a video with interviews of sandwich-board people in which we tried to find out about some of the most important aspects of this ‘profession’. During the era of Soviet propaganda, these walking advertisements, sandwiched in between two placards, always functioned as a symbol of the utmost exploitation of a person’s living labour. It is ironic that in post-Soviet space, working as a sandwich man has become one of the preferred models of unqualified, low-wage jobs. What amazed us about these interviews was how passive people are today: thrown into a struggle for mere survival, they are completely oblivious to any form of struggle or resistance against the system of exploitation that victimises them in such a striking manner. In fact, you could also say this about the majority of the artists in the international cultural industry, where the chances to survive are very limited but there is no meaningful form of mass protest whatsoever.

In Angry Sandwichpeople we decided to try to imagine protest in the form of a theatrical happening in an urban space. This action was carried out in close collaboration with two local activist groups (Worker’s Democracy and The Pyotr Alexeev Resistance Movement). The site of this visualisation was Stachek Square (stachka means ‘strike’ in Russian), where the striking workers of 1905 were stopped by police during their march and were massacred. We decided to bring Brecht’s poem out into this urban space line by line, carried by fictional ‘engaged’ sandwich-board people. Brecht’s body of work was an important point of reference because it contains such a broad variety of aesthetic methods and a clear understanding of how dialectical mechanisms are always at work in creativity, describing reality as a process of constant change that is the result of conflicts and contradictions, and therefore making the transformation of society possible. In our piece we tried to imagine how this dialectic might work in the medium of film.

GR: But one could still see the need to criticise the old dialectical method, at least where it theoretically sublates differences into harmonious identities or where it practically supports the fixation on taking over the state. Against these shadow aspects of dialectics, philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri attempt to propose new models of non representative politics in terms of exodus,desertion or flight lines. For these new concepts of resistance, the aim is to thwart a dialectical idea of power and resistance and conceptualise positive forms of dropping out, flights that are simultaneously productive – or as I call them, ‘instituent’ practices.09 As Virno writes in A Grammar of the Multitude (2001), this exit ‘modifies the context within which a problem has arisen, rather than facing this problem by opting for one or the other of the provided alternatives’. 10 The first action of Chto delat? In 2003 was The Re-foundation of Petersburg. I think you interpreted it yourselves as a kind of exodus, a new foundation, an instituent practice constituting itself in an act of fleeing. Is that right?

DV: You know that I find your concept of ‘instituent’ practices very inspiring, and I see our collective activity in art, together with the activity of many other groups and activists, as a sort of material proof of the concept’s theoretical validity. It also has very important connections to the tradition of the local interpretation of resistance that was developed under the totalitarian Soviet system, when artists and intellectuals managed to build a parallel reality that to a certain degree was uncontrollable by authorities. And it is worth remembering that our group started by organising The Re-foundation of Petersburg, which was a collective protest to the process that had taken place in real political life – the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the city. In the days of those official and pompous celebrations, which with hindsight inaugurated the age of a new repressive administration in the form of Putin’s Russia, a small group of about thirty people decided to leave the city centre by train from one of the city’s stations, where we organised a improvised demonstration, and then symbolically founded a new centre on the outskirts. So it was a gesture of exodus and attempt to imagine anew the ground for cultural life.

At the same time I have issues with this concept of exodus, however inspiring I may find it. You clearly say that it undermines the dialectical approach to reality, and I frankly commit to staying a materialist dialectician – our film on Brecht was a clear example of a visual choreography of the dialectic. As with most political movements, the efficiency of such a practice depends strongly on the critical mass of people who are taking part in it. Because ofthat, what is lacking for me in the notion of exodus is clarity about how the exodus is organised, about the identity of the subject who determines the way to move, where to and so on – rather traditional political questions. And in the current political situation the practices of exodus also create a ‘publicity without a public sphere’ (as Virno warned us in his book), and we are faced with the impossibility of constructing a sustainable political community or establishing a new constitutional principle.

In Russia there is a popular anecdote about a cowboy and a group of Indians: the Indians are standing on the hill and watching the lonely cowboy ride through the prairies. One of the Indians asks the others, ‘Who is this guy?’ The chief answers, ‘Uncatchable Joe’. ‘But why is he so uncatchable?’ ‘Because no one gives a fuck about him.’ The situation of many new protest movements reminds me of the situation of this cowboy, who can go wherever he wants to as long as no one wants to catch him. I think it is misleading to maintain that one can make politics by consciously escaping any type of conflict with the institutions of power… There is a growing feeling that the available space, inside and outside, where one could move is shrinking – the ‘Wild West’ is gone, and so is the ‘Wild East’. We are doomed to fight for our place. The lines of flight are becoming productive when they engage with conflict, when they attempt to challenge the existing order. I strongly disagree with John Holloway at this point. 11

It might be that my way of thinking is overdetermined by my local Russian situation, where any instituent practice is received neither with welcoming support nor with gentle ignoring by the authorities – it is met with an aggressive and repressive exclusion from any channel of public communication. But I am not sure whether it is a productive state for doing something… The ‘Western’ situation is very different from the situation at the periphery.

GR: I completely agree that we have to situate the problem within a specific political space and time, so there might be very different ideas of instituent practices. However, I have to stress that this concept is not another form of naïve anarchism which pretends that there is a world beyond organisation: it means instituting as creating, and at the same time struggling against institutionalisation. This is a twofold way of organising, one that does away with traditional forms. In your video Builders from 2005, for instance, there are some clear statements about collective forms of organisation. My favourite ones are the laconic ‘I don’t like the word community’ and the Deleuzian ‘Revolutionary art calls for a new people’. I understand both of them as components in a struggle against communitarian forms of organisation as well as against the state form. Using a concept coined by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, I would call these conceptualisations and actualisations ‘abstract machines’ – machines that carry the potential of a connection without bonds, a concatenation which is neither rigidly striating the singularities as in the state form nor totalising them in a identitarian community.12 It is important not to define these machines beforehand. In The Civil War in France (1871), for instance, despite a precise analysis of the Paris Commune, Marx does not indicate exactly what happened or should have happened after the breakdown of state power. There is a good reason for this, in that neither the Council of the Commune nor the workers’ councils or the soviets should be reified into a fixed model, but rather every battle should engender new forms of organisation of its own. In contrast to this however, in socialist reality the idea is frozen into a phrase, for instance in Lenin’s ‘Electricity plus soviets equals communism’; something similar happens with later, well-intentioned interpretations of historical revolutions, in which new forms of organisation were merely postulated, but never concretely executed.

DV: I am not sure that we have unlimited possible forms of political organisation. If we look back into history we may find many nuances in terms of how these forms became realized in this or that political situation, but they are based on a rather limited number of principles. It is hard to speculate what could happen after the collapse of state power. It is also hard to believe that this collapse will lead us automatically to a ‘nice’ stateless society. ‘Not to be governed this way’ is an important point of departure, but if we are able to think about the fundamental transformation of power, it would be irresponsible not to try to theorise the crisis of power that would happen in the wake of war, ecological disaster, financial crisis or any other catastrophes. We need to theorise the period that could lead to the transition to socialism.

It is interesting that today, in many reflections about 1968, participants and witnesses confirm that the movement had very vague ideas about what would happen if they won, about how to carry on with the struggle, even a very limited vision of the very near future – it was the triumph of tactics over strategy. So what we discuss within Chto delat? is the role of different institutions in the transformation of society – it can be structures aimed at revolutionary transformation or ones that are concerned with a more evolutionary agenda. Again, I disagree with you when you say that we shouldn’t think about these machines beforehand and rely on their appearance through the organic development of the struggle.

GR: I don’t think there is something like an ‘organic development of the struggle’ – maybe an ‘orgiastic’ development, but definitely nothing ‘natural’, ‘organic’.

DV: OK, let’s call it spontaneity, or even an orgiastic development. The fact is that such developments have an incredible innovative potential, but this potential can onlybe actualized through interaction with an ‘external agent’ – who in Zizek’s view is not the one who ‘simply “understands us better than ourselves”, who can provide the true interpretation of what our acts and statements mean; but it rather stands for the FORM of our activity’.13 So I think that the danger of the development of the New Left originates in their refusal to search for the new forms that externality may adopt. Of course, I don’t think its form should be pre-decided, but simply that it should have a form.

Lenin’s famous quote – ‘Communism is the power of Soviets plus the electrification of the whole country’ – could be considered a universal formula that implies that a new society is always based on profound technological modernisation of the everyday, but this modernization means nothing if it does not come hand-in-hand with and under the control of the people’s power. On the basis of that we are open for any sort of fruitful discussion – what does modernisation mean? And how is the people’s power executed? And heaps of other questions…

GR: Let’s follow the thread of councils and soviets right down into the art field. When you are talking about ‘art soviets’, don’t you think there is a problem? From the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets to the art soviets? It narrows the concept of the soviets down to a very particular field. Though at some point you used my reading of the Guattarian concept of transversality, it seems that a narrowing down to art soviets would be the opposite of a transversal movement, and it would bring with it the danger of striating the space of the soviets, closing the idea of art soviets into some bureaucratic practice in the art field.14 Or, to put it cynically: you translated soviets into councils, what would you say if I translated your term ‘art soviet’ into the ‘Arts Council’?

DV: The most important thing about a soviet as political form of organisation is that it combines two types of power – legislative and executive – in a single body constructed on the principle of the imperative mandate. It also combines communitarian and syndicalist forms of delegation. That is why they were so extraordinary in the history of political forms, and I think that their political potential is still to be discovered. That is also why they are normally organs of mobilisation in crisis situations, and very efficient in the case of collapse of the state power. The question of how to maintain this permanent status of mobilisation is a big one. Perhaps it is impossible – in the same way that a person cannot exist in a permanent becoming, as everyone needs a rest, the political organs need a form of institutionalisation. But I believe that even in a ‘frozen’ form they are much more challenging than any other form of parliamentary democracy. By introducing the idea of ‘art soviets’ I meant that we – artists and cultural producers – must determine what to do and how to work outside the framework of the institutions. And we should do it collectively through specific political organs. In the context of art it is even clearer what combining the legislative and executive power may mean – don’t you think so?

Of course we must be careful, because the model that I am talking about has nothing to do with Arts Council England or whatever corporate construction that mimics truly democratic organisations. There is a lot of confusion of terms, so we should analyse the material structures of specific bodies and their deeds, and then we will see a difference. We all know that when George W. Bush is talking about democracy, or when we see an advertisement for a new ‘revolutionary product’, we are seeing the same words operating with a very different meaning. I think it makes sense to reclaim and rethink the true meaning of revolution, of democracy, of soviet power…

GR: From my point of view, these are two possible strategies of discursive creation: to use old concepts and shift their meaning, and to invent new concepts, a creatio continua of multiple assemblages of terms. I think that through the discussion it has become clear that I tend more to the second version, while you appreciate the first, like in the Activist Club (2006-07) you developed last year.

DV: For the Activist Club, I had to develop a new terminology, one different from the original concept of a ‘workers’ club’. Workers’ clubs were introduced to the USSR in the mid-1920s. There is a famous piece conceived by Alexander Rodchenko for the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925 that was never produced in real life. It was a model of how such places should be organised. The piece tried to introduce Western, bourgeois audiences to a completely different method for staging cultural activities during the workers’ free time (for example, through ‘Lenin’s Corner’, a space for gatherings or the performance of ‘Live Newspapers’). The workers’ club proposed a totally new structure that was parallel to the traditional museum, with the goal of both orienting the workers in the political struggle and opening them up to a different type of aesthetic experience, undermining the idea of the idle consumer who finds pleasure and ’emancipates’ him or herself from the crudeness of the everyday through the experience of art objects in a museum. It was about building a space basedon educational methodology and co-creation.

Rodchenko’s workers’ club is impossible to imagine without the whole postrevolutionary situation – it is deeply rooted in the context of its time. That is why the idea of the workers’ club is inappropriate today. I would also say that for me there has been an important shift from worker to activist. Historically, the worker has signified a political position, but I now doubt that is the case. Today political subjectivity is shaped both inside and outside of labour relations, and the position of the political subject can only be determined through his or her active adoption of a stance.

However, the idea of a transformation of the leisure time of the privileged art consumer into the learning time of the oppressed is still worth actualising. In relation to this, I am very inspired by the situation that emerged recently in different social centres in Europe, where activists are building their own environments for self-learning activities, spaces created around cinema screenings, readings, concerts and discussions. I am often disappointed by the shabby aesthetics of space production that is normally adopted in social centres, squats and protest camps. I personally feel good inside them, and of course prefer them much more to the lounge areas that are championed by the new ‘creative class’ with their cosy hedonism. But I think that spaces should be organized differently, and with the installation of the Activist Club in the context of art institutions we are trying to demonstrate how this could be. 15 I hope that this artistic strategy of actualising the chances missed in history is important and one of the possible ways in which art can be developed today and still fulfill its historical mission – to carry on with the testing of ‘the existence of the communist hypothesis, in our consciousness and on the ground’.16

– Dmitry Vilensky & Gerard Raunig


  • For more information on Chto delat? and a full list of its members, see
  • Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (trans. I. Bertoletti, J. Cascaito and A. Casson), New York and Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004, p.70.
  • See John Holloway, Changing the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, London: Pluto Press, 2002. Also available at (last accessed on 3 July 2008).
  • For a discussion of the notion of ‘concatenation’, see Gerald Raunig, ‘Introduction: The Concatenation of Art and Revolution’, Art and Revolution. Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century (trans. A. Derieg), New York and Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007. Also available at (last accessed on 25 June 2008). For ‘identitarian community’, see G. Raunig, Tausend Maschinen. Eine kleine Geschichte der Maschine als sozialer Bewegung, Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2008.
  • S. Žižek, ‘Repeating Lenin’, op. cit.
  • The notion of ‘transversality’ was first developed by Félix Guattari at La Borde clinic as a way to disrupt the hierarchical logic of the institution, and to propose open and group practices that created relations of interdependency and collective subjectivity. See also G. Raunig, ‘Transversal Multitudes’,, september 2002, available at raunig/en (last accessed on 25 June 2008).
  • Activist Club has been seen presented at Motorenhalle Riesa ev, Dresden (2006), Teseco Art Foundation, Pisa (2006), Le Plateau, Paris (2007) and Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato (2007).
  • Alain Badiou, ‘The Communist Hypothesis’, New Left Review, no.49, January-February 2008. Also available at (last accessed on 3 July 2008).
  • ‘Burning Questions for Our Movemnet’ is the subtitle of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?
  • See Slavoj Žižek, ‘Afterword: Lenin’s Choice’, in Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Revolution at the Gates. Zizek on Lenin: The 1917 Writings (ed. Slavoj Zizek), London and New York: Verso, 2002.
  • The chef Ferran Adrià was invited to take part in documenta 12 as one of the artists.
  • Slavoj Zizek, ‘Repeating Lenin’,, n.d. Available at
  • Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940, trans. H. Zohn), in Michael W. Jennings (ed.), Selected Writings, Volume 4. 1938-1940, Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press, 2003, pp.394-9 (13th thesis).
  • ‘The Saturated Generic Identity of the Working Class: An Interview with Alain Badiou’,, 26 October 2006. Available at (last accessed on 3 July 2008).
  • In relation to the notion of the ‘monster institution’, see Pablo Carmona, Tomás Herreros, Raúl Sánchez Castillo and Nicolás Sguiglia, ‘Social Centres: Monsters and Political Machines for a New Generation of Movement Institutions’,, April 2008. Available at (last accessed on 25 June 2008).
  • For more information on ‘instituent’ practices, see G. Raunig, ‘Instituent Practices. Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming’ (trans. A. Derieg),, January 2006. Also available at (last accessed on 4 July 2008).