Issue #111 Trotsky, or Metamorphoses of Engagement

Trotsky, or Metamorphoses of Engagement

Boris Groys

Leon Trotsky and Natalia Sedova’s arrival in Mexico, accompanied by Frida Kahlo, 1937. Photographer unknown. Public domain. 

Issue #111
September 2020

The discussion about politically engaged art tore the art world apart in the twentieth century, and still does today. The advocates of absolute artistic autonomy react to engaged artists in a quite confrontational mode, and vice versa. However, the idea of ​​the autonomy of art is deeply connected to the project of artistic engagement. It is not particularly difficult to show that the radical autonomy of art can only be manifested through radical political engagement. And only the artist who is completely free and autonomous can become engaged.

The word “engagement” has become famous especially through the writings of Sartre. Sartre’s existentialism defined itself as consistent humanism—that is, as an assertion of the radical autonomy of the human individual. The individual was thereby understood as pure nothing, as absolute freedom of choice, as an existence that is not predetermined by any essence. Humans, therefore, were allowed to choose their own nature, but at the same time they had to choose their nature, for if they were to linger in nothingness, this nothingness would become their nature. According to Sartre, humans are nothing other than their engagement: there is no “hidden” person beyond what the person does in the world.1 Hence humans, following Sartre’s existentialism, can assert their absolute freedom only by its ultimate radicalization—that is, by demonstrating their freedom through a commitment to a certain intra-worldly attitude—which at the same time should have exemplary significance for all of humanity, so that this commitment acquires an “absolute character.”2 In Sartre’s engagement one can thus easily recognize Kant’s “aesthetic judgment.” For Sartre, engagement is determined, as is aesthetic judgment for Kant, by the paradox that although it cannot be legitimized, it nevertheless claims universal validity. Thus, political engagement as an irreducible and at the same time universally valid decision of individual liberty cannot be interpreted as the subjugation of art to the conditions of politics. Rather, it can be interpreted as an extension of aesthetic judgment, in which Kant founded the modern autonomy of art, to the totality of sociopolitical life.

The possibility of political engagement thus excludes above all any philosophical determinism that denies engaged individuals their original freedom and interprets their sociopolitical behavior according to the historical origin of these individuals and not as a consequence of their free choice. Thus, any commitment also indicates the possibility of betraying the cause to which one is committed, because any choice can be revoked. And even more, only by being revoked can a choice be manifested as a choice and not as an effect of causal determination. The possibility of betrayal is part of the nature of engagement. If engagement cannot be betrayed, it is not engagement, but merely the expression of an external or internal necessity to which one passively submits without having control over one’s own engagement.

So in order to become engaged, art first had to learn betrayal. Only by breaking with its own tradition does art gain the necessary freedom to become engaged. However, this break should not be understood as dictated by an inner necessity, as Kandinsky, for example, understood it.3 Rather, the break with tradition is to be understood as a pure act of betrayal that establishes the freedom of the artist and is rooted in pure nothingness. Only an art that is completely founded in nothingness and freed from all causal ties with reality can and must become engaged in order to gain a new access to the world. If art no longer represents or signifies anything, it must become useful.

Historically, the determination of art as having its place in nothingness was stated most radically in the first decades of the twentieth century—especially by Russian suprematism and German and French Dadaism. It is no coincidence that the question of the political engagement of art was posed with extreme radicalism in the wake of these currents. Only when one recognizes that art has no original relationship to reality does one want to produce this relationship artificially. This completes art as art, because its relation to reality also becomes artificially chosen and made. Here artists become engaged because of something that they are not—and thus complete themselves as free artists. It is characteristic that Malevich, for example, who perhaps most radically asserted nothingness as the essence of art, was criticized by artists of the next generation. The criticism was that he was still passively portraying this nothingness instead of engaging in the construction of the new, communist world, thereby manifesting his art as an act of nothingness. Already at that time, Nikolai Tarabukin wrote that the modern society of communist production was in itself a work of nonrepresentational art because it served no particular purpose—in the sense of consumption—and practiced production only for the sake of production.4

But this also announces the difficulty that arises the moment aesthetic judgment is transferred to sociopolitical reality in the form of engagement. It is well known that while the choice of engagement in the relevant theories was postulated as free, in reality it was mostly practiced in favor of the various variants of Marxist socialism, especially the Stalinist-style international communist movement. There are at least two key reasons for this. The first reason is that Marxism is a social theory that sees humans as beings completely defined by their social activity. For Marxism, a human is nothing beyond its life practice. And that can be interpreted precisely as this nothingness that is claimed by modern subjectivity, and especially modern art, as freedom and a source of engagement.

Therefore Sartre, who also defined people by their intra-worldly engagement, sympathized with Marxism, even though he criticized the economic determinism of Marxist theory because this determinism threatened autonomous freedom of choice.5 Even Bataille, who seems to hold an opposite position, spoke quite positively, in the context of his analysis of the Stalinist Soviet Union, about the reification of the human in Soviet communism, and finds in the self-identification of the individual with the thing a certain form of self-chosen “sovereignty.”6 Heidegger sharply criticized Sartre’s existentialism in his famous letter on humanism. This contributed significantly to the decline of Sartre’s influence in France, although, or perhaps because, Sartre often refers to Heidegger’s existential analysis. However, in his letter Heidegger also praises Marxism for its vision of the alienating character of history:

What Marx, following Hegel, recognized in an essential and significant sense as the alienation of man, goes back with his roots to the homelessness of modern man … Because Marx, in thematizing alienation, reaches into an essential dimension of history, therefore, the Marxist view of history is superior in relationship to all other histories.7

Here “homelessness” is another word for “freedom”: only the history of alienation addressed in Marxism gives the homeless person the opportunity to become engaged in this history.

Radically autonomous artists, who see themselves and their art as a place of nothingness, and Marxism, which sends them into nothingness, seem at first glance to be made for each other. Because art in the twentieth century was understood as an autonomous practice, as the sum of technical devices, and no longer as a spontaneous expression of the inner being of artists, it felt at once omnipotent and completely powerless: art can do anything, but it becomes an autonomous, purely technical object and gets its mandate from outside. In the context of bourgeois society it always has a very limited task.8 Only Marxist-socialist doctrine gives the artist an external task, which is at the same time a total task. Marxism and modern art seem to complement each other perfectly. But twentieth-century history has shown us that this harmony has never really materialized in practice, and that the relationship between Marxism and modern art was marked above all by mutual rejection, disappointment, and betrayal. So something in the seemingly perfect calculation did not work after all.

This disharmony is related to another important reason for modern art to be engaged in the Marxist, socialist project—the expectation that socialist society will be new. The new is understood here the same way in which modern art itself became new by creating artistic styles that stood in visible contrast to tradition and thus testified to the break with this tradition in a manner obvious to everyone. By betraying tradition and engaging in new forms of art, modern art wanted not only to be free but also to demonstrate its freedom. This, however, set certain limits on the freedom of engagement, for absolute freedom as such does not distinguish between the old and the new.

If free engagement wants to show itself as such, this engagement becomes unfree through this wish alone, because only the new can then become a potential object of engagement. In Sartre, this difficulty becomes noticeable through his condemnation of “false faith” (mauvais foi), which reveals itself to Sartre in the choice of what already exists. At the same time, Sartre essentially assumes that all engagements—old and new—are equal. But Heidegger, to whom Sartre refers, wrote: “Thought is not only l’engagement dans l’action for and through being in the sense of the real of the present situation. Thought is l’engagement through and for the truth of being. Its history has never gone away, it is always waiting in the future.”9 In other words, Heidegger, who already had his own unfortunate experience of engagement behind him, demanded that one become engaged not in what is already there and present, but, rather, in the absolutely new. And much later, Derrida summed up his Marxist engagement in a similar way when he defined Marxism as an apocalyptic waiting for the absolute other.10 Novelty, unfamiliarity, radical otherness are here the firm criteria of an authentic engagement. Now, however, this expectation of the new in relation to the communist society envisaged by Marxism has never been and cannot be fulfilled, for from the start this society understood itself both as a continuation of tradition and as a break with it. Marxism never defined itself as a new aesthetic-political style, for such a definition would contradict the Marxist dialectic, which seeks to undermine all such determinations.

On the side of artists, it has often been said that the reason for Marxism’s sympathy for tradition was that Marxist officials did not understand the new, radical, revolutionary art. That may be so. The question remains why the artists who so often formulated this accusation so stubbornly clung to the new art forms they created. If art is only the sum of technical devices, if it does not “express” anything and is not dictated by any inner necessity, there is just as little reason to insist on the new as on the old. Every engagement, if it is truly free, must, as has been said, also be revisable; not aesthetic consistency but only the usefulness of the artistic process should serve as a criterion. For the Communist Party leadership, it was therefore reasonable to assume that for the artists associated with it, the demonstration of aesthetic freedom and innovative strength was more important than really becoming engaged—that is, than freeing themselves from their own artistic style. Art wants to be visible; it wants to show itself. And if art wants to be free, it also wants to show that it is free. But in politics it is different: one is free precisely when one does not reveal one’s own position. Modern art in most cases proved incapable of appropriating this invisible and more radical freedom of aesthetic-political manipulation. Modern artists merely hoped that the mass influence of the Communist Party would replace the traditional public they had lost as a result of their artistic innovations. Of course, the Communist leadership did not want to be exploited in this way.

Thus, artists and intellectuals repeatedly felt betrayed by the Communist Party and complained about this alleged betrayal. It was perceived as a betrayal that the party proved to be organized in a quite traditional manner: politically repressive, bureaucratic, aesthetically conservative, and economically greedy. However, this betrayal was certainly just imaginary. The Communist Party did not follow tradition, but dealt with it in a purely manipulative way. The political struggle for power that the Communist Party fought was also the struggle for power over tradition, over the past, over the existing archives of cultural forms. The abandonment of tradition preached by the avant-garde was perceived from the Communist Party perspective as an arbitrary limitation of the party’s power—a limitation that was perceived as anti-communist. It was not the Communist apparatchiks but the artistic avant-garde that remained deeply rooted in tradition: every aesthetic break with tradition is necessarily also the next step in the continuation of tradition. For tradition itself is nothing other than the history of changing cultural forms, as described for instance by Hegelian dialectics.

But Marxist ideology is an ideology after the end of history, after the conclusion of the Hegelian dialectic, when all opposites and dividing lines have already become conscious and manageable. In this situation, the border crossing that the artistic avant-garde practiced was not a step forward, which would remove old boundaries, but merely a betrayal. For the post-Hegelian, Marxist-socialist self-understanding, no new territory beyond all borders is to be discovered, but only a hostile territory that has long been occupied by enemy forces. The avant-garde artist pretended to be a Columbus who could still discover an unknown continent on the voyage into the unprecedented. But the Marxist ideologue knew that America had already been discovered and had become a citadel of the class enemy. In our world, where all borders are already marked and all territories are occupied, every border crossing is just an emigration, a defection to the enemy. Thus the avant-garde artist, who considered him- or herself a vehicle of the spirit breaking through the borders of the status quo, could merely cross the already marked borders, once in one direction and the next time in the other: the border crosser has become a border traveler—that is, a professional traitor or refugee, as exemplified by Charlie Chaplin in the film in which he runs along the US-Mexico border.

Marxist ideology is of course also a dialectic, but it is a materialistic dialectic. And that means that borders can be eliminated not in spirit but only in material practice. If, for example, the United States and Mexico were simultaneously destroyed by a nuclear strike, the border between them would also be eliminated. But as long as these states exist materially, a purely imaginary, spiritual crossing of their border remains only a change of position in relation to this border, which therefore leaves the border intact; this is, as I’ve said, betrayal. The late Marxist dialectic, especially in its Stalinist form, is basically a theory of such a betrayal: a betrayal by people and things. For dialectical materialism, the dramaturgy of events develops by virtue of the negation of negation, or by virtue of the betrayal of the traitors. Nothing remains in its familiar place. Everything is constantly repositioned. Friends and enemies are constantly redefined. People and things change their positions with regard to all boundaries, intentionally or unintentionally, but in any case permanently. Every attitude constantly turns into its opposite. What was reactionary and damnable yesterday is progressive and welcome today—and maybe reactionary again tomorrow. But nothing can be neither progressive nor reactionary. Nothing can be merely different: a third way is impossible in a divided reality.

There is a well-established opinion that Soviet dialectical materialism shaped by Stalinism is a dogmatic, immovable doctrine that seeks to theoretically comprehend life in a complete and final way. Nothing is further from the truth. The core of dialectical materialism is the doctrine of reality as the unity and conflict of opposites: for dialectical materialism, life is a paradox that cannot be resolved theoretically, since every theory, if it wants to be consistent and move in a certain direction, sooner or later crosses a certain invisible border and becomes its opposite, just as someone who constantly moves in a certain direction on the face of the earth leaves his country’s territory and goes over to the enemy’s. So in order to stay with himself he has to turn around and move in the opposite direction—but then one no longer knows whether the person in question will launch an enemy attack on his own country. Here we are dealing with the paradox of a dialectic after the closure of the infinite historical perspective, whereby a new dialectic of the finite or a dialectic of reversibility is instituted. Every thought fails before this paradox, which cannot be overcome dialectically—precisely because it itself is the principle of every inversion. It is only possible to repeat this paradox monotonously in order to surrender before it and clear the way for the inner paradox of Soviet ideology, which Orwell parodied in slogans such as “peace is war.” Similarly, one can say “tradition is innovation” or “innovation is tradition.” The paradox of official Soviet Marxism is deeper than the political engagement of the avant-garde.

Thus, an intellectual or artist gradually begins to understand that the engagement with a certain position in the context of a post-Hegelian, post-historical dialectical teaching such as Marxism is at the same time an engagement with the opposite of this position. One engages oneself as a friend and is treated as an enemy. Or one engages oneself as an enemy and is welcomed as a friend. The boundaries are always the same, but the positions are constantly rotating, as if the United States and Mexico were constantly changing places. The difference between difference and identity cannot be stabilized. Thus avant-garde artists who search for the other are seen as traitors, but at the same time they are betrayed if they persist in their belief in the same. Incidentally, it is naive to speak today about the demise or the end of Soviet Marxism. The Soviet Union, the empire of dialectical materialism, wasn’t defeated by external enemies or an internal uprising. Rather, this empire changed its political positioning. The system betrayed itself in the person of Gorbachev as its highest representative, because from the beginning it was a system of betrayal. So this change of political positioning was nothing but another victory of the Marxist dialectic.

Now it becomes clear why the Marxist-socialist engagement of intellectuals and artists has generally led to disappointment: this commitment presupposed a certain consistency, be it consistency in the constant search for the other or consistency in the fidelity to one’s own choice. But it is precisely this consistency that has proved impossible in the materialistic-dialectical play of total reversibility. The engagement, as a visible choice between positions, loses all its pathos when all positions become interchangeable. And the search for the other becomes treacherous when the supposedly unknown other proves to be the long-known enemy. And so the artist begins to search for someone who shows a certain irreversible consistency in the field of politics in order to engage oneself with this person. For example, one engages oneself with Trotsky after his break with the Stalinist Soviet Union.

Here one finally sees someone who has remained consistent, who wanted a permanent revolution, and who rejected all that exists in every form. Trotsky, of course, did not cross new borders, but only crossed the already existing Russian border to the West, from which he had once returned to Russia, from which he had emigrated even earlier. Thus Trotsky, although by his own fate, also demonstrated the reversibility of the late dialectic and merely passed the same border in both directions several times. But at least he found refuge in Mexico, a country beyond the immediate East-West conflict, in the house of an artist.

In the person of Trotsky, politics itself asked for art’s help. The reaction was easy to predict. Most artists and intellectuals rightly interpreted this request as a sign of weakness and rejected it. Because of its historical weakness, many authors, including Sartre and Bataille, saw Trotskyism not as a solution but merely as a Western intellectual current that was not worth the effort to become engaged in. It should not be overlooked: one wanted to engage oneself in the service of the historical winner and not the historical loser. Trotsky’s criticism of conditions in the former Soviet Union was known in the West. It definitely shaped the relationship of many Western artists and intellectuals to Stalinist Russia, and even if it did not fully immunize them against Stalinist propaganda, it did raise some doubts. However, the image of the lonely representative of the world spirit who wanders through the world was too familiar to most artists and intellectuals to evoke special enthusiasm.

Perhaps the only prominent exception was Breton’s Trotskyist commitment. But this exception confirms the rule, for Breton understood surrealism not as a purely aesthetic style but, rather, as a study of the unconscious by artistic means. From the very beginning, surrealist art thus had its own autonomous content and its own external task for Breton. As a result, more than political engagement—that is, voluntary submission to an effective political force that would allow formalistic art to find a new relation to reality—Breton sought a political ally who could support the goals of the surrealist revolution of the unconscious. The refusal of Breton to see art as pure form and anchor it in nothingness has something old-fashioned about it: the surrealism of Breton reminds us of nineteenth-century realism, with its claim to its own truth and scientific nature—even though the surrealists searched for truth in the unconscious. Thus, Breton committed himself to Trotsky not because he sought a free commitment, but simply followed his belief in the necessity of surrealism.

Therefore, in the 1920s Breton was able to put his surrealism “au service de la révolution” and at the same time demand the autonomy of the surrealist work with the unconscious. Only when artists are completely modern—meaning that their art is grounded in nothingness—are they confronted with the alternative of completely abandoning reality or submitting to it. Otherwise, the artist is not free enough to become engaged but is always already determined. And it is precisely this feeling of inner determination that frees the artist from submission to external powers. Here is the point at which Trotsky and Breton met in the 1930s, for Trotsky was a Marxist determinist, trusting in the political freedom of the arts. In their manifesto “Pour un art révolutionnaire indépendant” (1938), coauthored by Trotsky but not cosigned for reasons of censorship, Breton and Trotsky insist on the political independence of art, even if they reject reactionary—that is, anti-communist—art.11 Incidentally, Trotsky’s aesthetic views allowed him from the beginning to define the field of art as autonomous.

Trotsky’s deterministic, traditionally Marxist conception of art had led him even earlier to deny the possibility of socialist or proletarian art under the conditions of his time. Trotsky considered the attitude of the Stalinist dialectic of free choice, which called artists to take on the standpoint of communist ideology, unrealistic. For Trotsky, the position of the artist was historically conditioned and could not be artificially changed by means of conscious engagement. Thus the choice between Stalinism and Trotskyism becomes, as it were, the choice between inner freedom, which leads to external political submission, and inner determination, which guarantees external political freedom.

In the Soviet Union, Trotsky was long considered the epitome of the traitor to the cause of Soviet communism. At the same time, Trotsky himself spoke of the “revolution betrayed,” meaning that the revolution was betrayed by the Stalinist leadership, whose victory for Trotsky meant a “Thermidor”—that is, the beginning of the counterrevolutionary process in Russia. This parallelism shows how far Trotsky distanced himself from Soviet ideology. The idea that a country or a party can betray a person is completely alien to Stalinist ideology because it sees no compelling reason for the individual to refrain from adapting to prevailing circumstances. Every human being has the inner freedom and at the same time the duty to accept historical judgment.

Incidentally, almost all the Bolsheviks condemned in the period of Stalin shared this view, and so they tried constantly, albeit in vain, to prove their loyalty. Trotsky, on the other hand, felt betrayed and insisted on an inner vision of the revolution that was compelling to him and could not be the subject of free choice or dialectical substitution. Sartre, as a philosopher of engagement, rejected the determinism of Marxist doctrine. Trotsky embodies this determinism, which is reminiscent of the Protestant doctrine of divine predestination. Stalin embodies the Catholic side of Marxism with its emphasis on free choice, which not by chance especially fascinated the post-Catholic French intelligentsia. Trotsky is a Protestant, deterministic soul who refuses to decide or let others decide freely about his inner truth. Thus, Trotsky remains attractively conservative—that is, nonstrategic.

This becomes particularly clear if one remembers his earlier polemic against postrevolutionary Russian futurism, which called for an absolute break with the past and the creation of a proletarian culture. In this culture, the radically new avant-garde artistic form was supposed to unite with the equally radical communist content that was meant to be obligatory in the new Russia. For Trotsky, the call for a break with the past merely showed that the futurists, albeit negatively, still defined themselves in the context of bourgeois tradition. Trotsky writes: “The futuristic break with the past is ultimately just a storm in the closed little world of the intelligentsia … The futurists have separated from them—and have done right—but one should not proclaim the technique of separation as a law of world development.”12 The aesthetic separation from the past, according to Trotsky, did not mean a separation from the bourgeoisie. For him, the transition of the futurists to the demand for proletarian culture was merely an effect of an event completely independent of the futurists’ activities, namely the October Revolution, which disempowered the bourgeois class and made it impossible for the futurists to return to their traditional role. According to Trotsky, the futurists are not free artists, freed from the burden of tradition, willing to engage themselves for the cause of the proletariat, but rather victims of a change in circumstances to which they, like all others, had to adapt.

Cover of Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1957). 

Trotsky by no means blames the futurists for their bourgeois tradition. Rather, he sees the superiority of his own position in recognizing his own determination through history: “We Marxists have always lived in traditions and have not stopped being revolutionaries just because of them … We who were educated in the context of an organically grown epoch and went into battle, lived in the traditions of the revolution.”13 The futurists’ unwillingness to accept that their aesthetic revolution also has a tradition tempts futurism to demand a proletarian dictatorship in art. But according to Trotsky, proletarian—that is, socialist—art can only emerge within a historically established socialist order: new art does not arise through an individual free decision but as the necessary consequence of a changed social determination.

Moreover, Trotsky denies the possibility of a proletarian culture even in the future because, unlike the bourgeoisie, the proletariat historically had no chance of forming itself culturally. The proletarian dictatorship cannot produce its own art because this dictatorship in essence represents only a transitional period to the future classless society:

From this it is necessary to draw the general conclusion that not only is there not a proletarian culture, but it will not exist; and there is truly no reason to regret this: the proletariat has just seized the power to put an end once and for all to class culture and pave the way for human culture.14

Essentially, Trotsky denies here the usual interpretation of the “permanent revolution,” a concept associated with his name and commonly understood precisely as proclaiming the separation from tradition as the law of world evolution. Trotsky understood the permanent revolution merely as a transition from bourgeois to proletarian revolution, which was, however, to introduce a new epoch without historical ruptures. For Trotsky, art represents, first, an autonomous domain of mastery and, second, a representation of reality whose character is decided by the artist’s social determination and therefore cannot be dictated from outside:

The Marxist method offers the possibility to analyze the conditions for development of the new art, to observe all its sources and to support the most progressive among them by a critical examination of its ways—but nothing more. The art has to go its own way on its own feet. The methods of Marxism are not the methods of art. Party directs the proletariat, not the historical process.15

These formulations are certainly far removed from the demand for partisanship in arts as it was understood in the Stalinist era: art that is partisan or, if you will, engaged, should shape reality in its entirety rather than simply portray it. For Trotsky, on the other hand, art remains above all the subject of Marxist analysis and diagnosis, which only apply if art follows its own inner logic that necessarily connects it with the historical process, which can only be reflected upon but not directed. In the context of the polemic against futurism, Trotsky writes: “Art—we are told—is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, but transforms … To shave one must have a mirror, and how should one rebuild oneself, one’s own life, without looking into the ‘mirror’ of literature?”16 This passage shows why Trotsky later so vehemently protested against the control of art and literature in the Stalinist Soviet Union: Stalinist cultural policy adopted and enforced the demand of the radical avant-garde for an art that did not depict the world but rather transform it—however, only under Stalinism’s own direction. Thus art was robbed of its diagnostic value and could no longer serve as a mirror of life. Only art that does not become engaged is good art for the Marxist Trotsky, since it is an art suitable for Marxist analysis. On the other hand, a free art beyond any inner necessity becomes only an accomplice in political manipulation. Trotsky’s insight has proved itself over time.

At the end of the twentieth century, the story of the engagement of new art for new politics reveals above all the problematic character of the claim to absolute freedom with which this new art emerged at the beginning of the century. If it wished to enforce its inner freedom consistently, it would’ve had to step out of its own realm, deny its original relationship to reality, and engage itself for external ends; as Mayakovsky said, it would’ve had “to step on the neck of its own song.” Art needed to replace its own with the foreign and be ready to become insincere and unbelievable.

However, the new art was also under pressure to recognize the reversibility of all things, which characterized late dialectics, and to renounce the identifiability of its own engagement. Anyone who decides for the world of politics decides for the whole of this world and submits to the constant exchange between friend and foe. Freedom of choice loses its meaning because the opposite of this choice is also always chosen. But if the new art wanted to be aesthetically consistent, it needed to give up the claim of absolute freedom and legitimize itself through a kind of necessity—be it the inner necessity of the unconscious or the external logic of the development of artistic form. However, such an aesthetically consistent art would’ve failed to satisfy the expectations of its recipients, who in the twentieth century had long since learned to ignore every kind of inner necessity and, instead, think and act in a purely strategic manner. Thus Trotsky remained alone in his deterministic analysis of Stalinist society, which likewise quickly learned to simulate every inner determination in a purely external way.


Jean-Paul Sartre, L’existentialisme est un humanisme (Éditions Nagel, 1970), 58. All quotes from non-English sources translated by the author.


Sartre, L’existentialisme est un humanisme, 71.


Wassili Kandinsky, Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (Benteli, 1952), 78ff.


Nikolai Taraboukine, Le dernier tableau (Champ Libre, 1972), 69.


Sartre, L’existentialisme est un humanisme, 81.


Georges Bataille, Die Aufhebung der Okonomie (Matthes & Seitz, 1985), 175.


Martin Heidegger, Platons Lehre von der Wahrheit, mit einem Brief uber den “Humanismus” (Francke Verlag, 1947), 87.


Peter Burger, Theorie der Avantgarde (Suhrkamp, 1974), 66ff.


Heidegger, Platons Lehre von der Wahrheit, mit einem Brief uber den “Humanismus”, 54.


Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx (Éditions Galileé, 1994).


See Helena Lewis, The Politics of Surrealism (Paragon House, 1988), 146–47.


Leo Trotzki, Literatur und Revolution (Gerhardt Verlag, 1968), 110.


Trotzki, Literatur und Revolution, 112.


Trotzki, Literatur und Revolution, 138.


Trotzki, Literatur und Revolution, 184.


Trotzki, Literatur und Revolution, 116.

Philosophy, Communism, Aesthetics, Marxism, Ideology
Autonomy, Subjectivity
Return to Issue #111

This text, originally published in German in 1996, is excerpted from the forthcoming book Boris Groys, Logic of the Collection, trans. Anne Luther (Sternberg Press).

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde. He is a Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, a Senior Research Fellow at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe, and a professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School (EGS). His work engages radically different traditions, from French post-structuralism to modern Russian philosophy, yet is firmly situated at the juncture of aesthetics and politics. Theoretically, Groys’s work is influenced by a number of modern and postmodern philosophers and theoreticians, including Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Walter Benjamin.


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