June 27, 2022

Locating Trans-Socialism: Communism, Putinism, and Human Nature

Michał Murawski

Zofia Kulik, All Things Converge in Time and Space; To Disperse, To Converge, To Disperse, and So On, 1992. Detail.

This short text proposes the idea of “trans-socialism” as an intersectional form of leftist political and aesthetic practice. Trans-socialism is rooted in the historical experience of state socialism, as well as in the long process of state socialism’s unravelling—but also in the multiple ways in which the reality produced by socialism continues to haunt the wild capitalist present.

At the same time, trans-socialism remains vigilant, aware of the extent to which the actually-existing reality of state socialism was (and is still) tied in with coloniality, racism, coercive heteronormativity, misogyny, labor exploitation, ethnic chauvinism (specifically, but not exclusively, Russian ethnic chauvinism), resource extractivism, and nature-hatred. Under the conditions of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine—which is waged in part under the banner of transphobic sexual counterrevolution—it becomes clear that a crucial trait distinguishing a (trans-)socialist anthropology from a Putinist-fascist as well as a liberal-capitalist one is its commitment to the plasticity of so-called “human nature.”

What Is Trans-Socialism?

There are three main points of departure for the concept of trans-socialism.1 The first is that it does not see the socialist project as something which is obsolete, failed, or finished. There are a lot of socialist remainders (or still-socialists,2 or socialist zombies3) alive-after-death in the so-called post-socialist world, whether in the form of buildings, infrastructure, institutional formations, everyday aesthetics, or forms of speech. There is a lot in the world, in other words, which is not post-socialist but still-socialist. The second point of departure is that the socialist world is not seen as being confined to the actually-existing countries of the Soviet Union and other parts of the Eastern Bloc. State socialism always actually existed globally. These countries were globally connected during the time of state socialism’s heyday; and—as numerous recent studies have shown—they cross- and counter-exported socialist material culture and political aesthetics back and forth between continents, in a way which was economically and politically distinct to the manner in which the West interacted with the world.4 Further, socialism—also in its actually-existing state form—had an enormous impact on the hegemonic West.

Thirdly, and most broadly, trans-socialism is understood as an intersectional mode of socialist politics, economy, sexuality, ecology, and aesthetics. The idea behind trans-socialism as a research practice is to mine the so-called post-socialist world for subversive, perverted, radical things. It aims to look for, catalogue, compare, and reactivate ideas, works of art, modes of economic organization, ways of relating to nature, ecology, and the cosmos which might have a capacity to unsettle the parameters of the wild capitalist, patriarchal power vertical, which constitutes the hegemonic political-economic formation in the world today.

The idea of trans-socialism seeks to provide a conceptual framework that might allow us to conceive of the actually-existing socialist legacy not in terms of ruin, failure, horror, and tragedy, but in terms of success, endurance, still-seething but dormant inspiration, and still-solid (material and social) infrastructure. From the trans-socialist point of view, socialism’s tangible and intangible legacies provide an infrastructural “scaffold”—in Kimberly Zarecor’s term—onto which experimental kinds of intersectional trans-socialist theory and practice might be able to usefully hoist themselves.5

The Dialectical Logic of Culture Z

This text was initially drafted at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022. It was intended as an attempt towards a systematic accounting and theorization of how the state-socialist past—and the still-socialist present—continues to haunt the doomsday capitalism of the 2020s; and of which aspects of state-socialist political, social, and aesthetic praxis can continue to meaningfully inform new constellations of intersectional progressive politics today. In the wake of the rape, murder, torture, and destruction of Russia’s war on Ukraine—a war which itself is heavily saturated with positively valorized though mutated, distorted, and caricatured allusions to Soviet doxa of solidarity, anti-fascism, and internationalism—the terms of this theorization have to be rethought.

How can we talk, with a straight face, about progressive forms of socialist sexuality when Russia’s president makes rape jokes about Ukraine with one breath, representing a country he is about to invade as a woman who ought to grin and bear the sexual violence committed against her (“like it or not, such is your lot”)6; and, with the other breath, justifies war through mutated idioms of Soviet internationalism and anti-fascism? On a theoretical level, how can we maintain an attachment to a communist ideology whose overdetermining debt to Hegelian-Marxian dialectics inflects it with a vernacularized binary logic, which—despite the dialectic’s avowed desire to surpass its opposing poles—has consistently proven seductively, reductively petrifying for its adherents?

The violently heteronormative sexual politics of Putin’s Russia, it might be argued, are the logical outcome of a state-socialist sexual politics which, in the USSR, criminalized and actively persecuted most forms of nonbinary sexuality. Most extraordinarily, in his speech declaring war on February 24, Putin framed the necessity to invade Ukraine in terms of Russia’s historical mission to defend traditional axes of heteronormativity:

They sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us false values that would erode us, erode our people from within … attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature. This is not going to happen. No one has ever succeeded in doing this, nor will they succeed now. (emphasis added)

This justification for the war in Ukraine—as a war in defense of binary sexual politics—was repeated with even dumber clarity in an address to children’s writers on March 25, in which Putin invoked Harry Potter and railed against “cancel culture”:

Children’s writer J. K. Rowling, the author of books that have sold hundreds of millions of copies around the world, has recently been cancelled in much the same way [as Russia has been cancelled] for displeasing supporters of so-called gender freedoms … Today, they are trying to cancel an entire millennium-old country, our people.

In a wordplay worthy of a third-rate Soviet dialectician, Putin added: “This notorious ‘cancel culture’ has turned into the cancellation of culture.”(Пресловутая “культура отмены” превратилась в отмену культуры.)

These are not just marginal comments, asides to a project whose central thrust can be unproblematically identified with reference to its last-instance determination from the inner depths of gas pipes, derivative flows, or commodity chains. Putin’s “human nature” comment was delivered in the culminative moment of his war speech. The militarized defense of the binary, as Polish feminists Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk have recently also suggested, lies at the very core of the dialectical logic of Russia’s war, and more broadly of Russia’s now manifest state-fascist public culture. A Marxist analysis of Russia’s war on Ukraine has to make sense for the intense (relative) affective and causal autonomy of these kinds of ideo-logics. A militantly binary sexual ideology is part of the infrastructure, not the superstructure, of Russia’s Culture Z.

uZZr vs. Proper DecommuniZation

So what precisely is Soviet—and what is non- or even anti-Soviet—about Russia’s war and its ideological justification? Russia’s war on Ukraine is framed, at once, as a process of “denazification” and of “decommunization.” In his deranged portents-of-war speech on February 21, Putin made the absurd, ahistorical claim that the state of Ukraine is a pathological byproduct of the Russian Revolution:

Ukraine ought be named “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Ukraine.” He [Lenin] is its [Ukraine’s] creator and its architect. And now the “grateful” Ukrainians have demolished his monuments. They call it “decommunization.” You want decommunization? Well, we’re delighted. But let’s not stop halfway. We’re ready to show you what proper decommunization looks like. (emphasis added)

These words are entirely consistent with the Putinist doxa that while the fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical tragedy, so was the Russian Revolution in the first place. The official state historiographical narrative, consolidated throughout the Putin era, has been that Lenin and the Revolution were criminal phenomena, whereas Stalinism and the “stabilization” which followed it were positive processes which established the Soviet Union as a global superpower in the new hyper-binary order of the Cold War.


Three days following Putin’s toxic rant, Russia’s armed forces launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Since the outbreak of the war, the deployment of symbols and slogans associated with the Soviet Union and with Russia’s so-called Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany has been consistently inconsistent. On the one hand, the Russian state has openly adopted Nazi symbolism. The Latin letter “Z,” with which many Russian military vehicles participating in the invasion of Ukraine have been marked, has been elevated to the status of the primary symbol of Russia’s war. There can be no doubt that the “Z” has been seized on by propagandists—and by the enthusiastic members of the Russian public who support the war—in large part because of its resemblance to the Nazi swastika (or rather, as Boris Groys has recently pointed out, to a half-swastika).7

It would be convenient for the global left—sympathetic with Lenin, the Revolution, and the Soviet project but anti-Stalinist and anti-Putinist (although apparently not so anti-Putinist)—to latch onto Putin’s identification of Lenin with Ukraine, and his apparent framing of the war as a radical extension of Ukraine’s own decommunization agenda. Unfortunately, things are not so simple. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been constantly marked by rhetorics and aesthetics of Soviet nostalgia. The Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” in Russian-occupied Donbas are both consciously neo-Soviet creations, while footage of Russian Soviet-era T72 tanks marked with Zs and flying Soviet flags from their turrets circulated widely on pro-Russian social media in the first days of the 2022 invasion. On April 16, the giant head of a Lenin monument in Russia’s Inner Asian Republic of Buryatia—home to a vastly disproportionate number of the troops sent to kill and be killed in Ukraine—had a poster of a swastika superimposed on the Russian flag stuck onto its plinth. And, on April 17, Russian soldiers in occupied Henichesk in southern Ukraine went full-circle by re-erecting a monument to Lenin—dismantled in 2015 following the passing of Ukraine’s decommunization laws—outside the city hall. This kind of performative “re-communization” reached a crescendo with the Victory Day celebrations, and in the monumentalization of the cult of “Babushka Z”—a Soviet-flag-brandishing elderly Ukrainian woman, who, as if mimicking Gerasimov’s socialist-realist canvas Mother of a Partisan (1943), refused a food parcel from a Ukrainian soldier. Babushka Z has now been immortalized on endless murals, billboards, and memes. Monuments have been erected in her honor in Belgorod and in the ruins of the temporarily occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol.8

On the other hand, it is socialist material culture and socialist infrastructure that is being pulverized by the Russian war machine. Just as it is not the government of Ukraine but the government of Russia that poses the only substantive existential threat to Russian speakers inhabiting the territory of the former USSR, it is not the Ukrainian government’s own decommunization program that is ripping apart the built fabric of Soviet Ukraine. As architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina has pointed out, most of the damage done to Ukraine’s architectural fabric has been meted out to postwar residential housing blocks between nine and fourteen stories tall, which constitute the bulk of Ukraine’s housing stock.9 Of the fourteen hundred buildings destroyed as of April 2022 throughout Kharkiv, twelve hundred are residential blocks. As Gubkina puts it elsewhere, “The social function [of Soviet-era mass housing] was to make cheap architecture for the greatest number of people … And now, because of all those lives [living in them], they [the buildings] have become a target. Because people are the target.”10

Conclusion: Human Nature, Go Fuck Yourself

Trans-socialism, as a category of analysis and praxis, addresses questions of specificity, survival, and subversion. First, to what extent did state socialism produce a world that was specific and differential, distinct from the Western world? Second, to what extent, and where, does this world—or do these worlds—continue to linger and reproduce themselves? Third, is there anything about this and those worlds that can help us to critique, interrupt, warp, and reconstruct the contours of our world today?

A great volume of recently published theoretical, empirical, and agitational work—much of it outstanding in terms of its sophistication and imaginative capacity—provides clues. Russian-Georgian Marxist philosopher Keti Chukhrov addresses the question of specificity (although she does not use this word). The aesthetic output and political economy of state socialism, Chukhrov argues, provides a path for the “radical recomposition” (and attests to the “radically different epistemological development”) of ideas and practices of “labor, sexuality, power, gender, culture, unconsciousness, consciousness”—and of reality itself—in the capitalist versus the socialist world.11 Whereas Chukhrov’s focus is on 1960s Soviet film and theory, Romanian scholar of film, culture, and sexuality Bogdan Popa reaches into Stalin-era material and visual culture (Popa refers to objects produced in socialist economies as “counter-fetishes,” adapting José Esteban Muñoz) to extricate and awaken dormant modes of estrangement and disturbance. For Popa—who derives theoretical inspiration from Chukhrov, Muñoz, Groys, Fred Moten, and Marx—Marxist culture’s incessant focus on the eradication—or, rather, the abolition—of private property chimes powerfully with twenty-first-century intersectional radicalism, with its focus on the abolition of state and corporate institutions of racial and sexual violence. Queer theory, Popa shows, can be enlivened through an engagement with socialist culture’s incessant, genial, instructive obsession with ending the free ownership of the means of production. In particular, too, Popa points to Marxism’s rejection of doxic models of bodily and sexual fixity, and, despite its tendency towards petrification, to the subversive potential of the dialectic therein: “In the Soviet dialectical conception, men and women were not given as a material embodiment that was fixed and unchanging. According to a Marxist logic, they were elements in a mode of production that had to abolish capitalism continuously.”12

Presaging Chukhrov and Popa, Chinese-American comparative literature scholar Petrus Liu provides compelling testimony to distinct and autonomous traditions of queer Marxist thinking and cultural production long brewing in “both” Chinas: ROC and PRC. Liu proffers a compatibility between what he calls “non-liberal” relational, dialectical conceptions of the human—or anthropologies—inherent to both Marxism and to queer theor(ies).13 Meanwhile, a major recent volume grounded in the experience of American, British, and Brazilian trans activism and thought—titled Trans-Gender Marxism and boldly emblazoned with the trans-communist symbol, a merged transgender glyph and hammer and sickle—contains very few substantive references to the state-socialist experience. There are, however, several invocations of the late socialist monist philosopher Evald Ilyenkov, the “Soviet Spinoza.” Here, too, an abolitionist commitment to human plasticity serves as a clarion call. In the words of editors Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke, “Our end is not just a more rigorous understanding of our social afflictions, but fuel for the abolition of what has long been intolerable. What has been made can be unmade.”14

Most urgently given today’s predicament, Olexii Kuchanskyi, who theorizes the development of Ukrainian artists’ cinema since 2014 (with particular reference to the work of Oleksyi Radynski and fantastic little splash), speaks of Ukrainian culture as being in a process of “exodus from the post-Soviet condition—trans- rather than post-Soviet.” This process, Kuchanskyi hints, is accelerated and potentiated by the “transindividual subjectivity” of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion and by the agency of “people’s bodies united in common action” that this resistance collects and deploys.15

It is reasonable to interpret Putin’s “no one has ever succeeded in transforming human nature” affirmation as directed not only against non-heteronormative understandings of sexuality and culture, but also against the Bolshevik and state-socialist project of the creation a new Soviet person (or a new socialist person)—a project still inadequately understood by historians and ethnographers and too frequently temporally bracketed with the 1920s “innocent years” of the early Soviet avant-garde.

An arrogantly petrified vision of “human nature”—as fixed, conservative, unreflexive, rapacious, conservative, competitive, and extractive—is the common thread uniting the anthropology of Putinist fascism and liberal capitalism. By contrast, a plastic, truly dialectical anthropology is the root of a dynamic—both theoretical and agitational—intersectional socialist horizon.

Notes
1

This term was proposed in passing in Jonathan Bach and Michał Murawski, “Introduction: The Political Morphology of Undead Urban Forms,” in Re-centring the City: Global Mutations of Socialist Modernity, ed. Bach and Murawski (UCL Press, 2020). Several scholars and activists, including Bogdan Popa (see below), have referred to the idea of “trans-communism”; and Olexii Kuchanskyi has also hinted at the idea of the “trans-Soviet” (see below).

2

Michał Murawski, “Actually-Existing Success: Economics, Aesthetics and the Specificity of Still-Socialist Urbanism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 60, no. 4 (2018).

3

Liviu Chelcea and Oana Druta, “Zombie Socialism and the Rise of Neoliberalism in Post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe,” Eurasian Geography and Economics 57, no. 4–5 (2016).

4

Łukasz Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism (Princeton University Press, 2020).

5

Kimberly Zarecor, “What Was So Socialist about the Socialist City? Second World Urbanity in Europe,” Journal of Urban History 44, no. 1 (2018).

6

On February 7, 2022, referring to Ukraine’s reservations about the Russian-Ukrainian Minsk protocols, Putin quoted a line from a pro-rape Russian folk song (chastuskha): “Like it or not, you’d better put up with it, my beauty” (Nravit’sya ne nravit’sya, terpi moya krasavitsa).

7

“Idea of the Russian World: Interview with the Philosopher Boris Groys,” 42 Paraleli, May 7, 2022 .

8

Identified as Anna Ivanova, Babushka Z was forced to flee her home and found shelter in a Kharkiv hospital, where she was filmed expressing her support for Ukraine and her regret for her earlier action.

9

Ievgeniia Gubkina, “All War Crimes Must Be Dealt With—Including Those Against Our Architectural Heritage,” Bauwelt, no. 8, 2022.

10

Ievgeniia Gubkina and Izzy Kornblatt, “A Leading Ukrainian Urban Scholar on Russia’s Violent War,” Architectural Record, April 15, 2022 .

11

Keti Chukhrov, Practicing the Good: Desire and Boredom in Soviet Socialism (e-flux and University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 14.

12

Bogdan Popa, De-Centring Queer Theory: Communist Sexuality in the Flow During and After the Cold War (University of Manchester Press, 2021), 43.

13

Petrus Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas (Duke University Press, 2022).

14

Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke, “Introduction,” in Trans-Gender Marxism (Pluto Press, 2021), 28.

15

Olexii Kuchanskiy, “Exodus from the Post-Soviet Condition: Artists’ Cinema after the Maidan Revolution,” presentation at the symposium “Collective Body Dismembered,” SMK National Gallery of Art, Denmark, May 31, 2022 .

Category
War & Conflict, Gender
Subject
Ukraine, Russia, Soviet Union, Transgender, Queer Art & Theory

Michał Murawski is an anthropologist of architecture and of cities based at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

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