The latest installment of the Demotic Archives – in which Vladimir Ilyich Lenin offers a set of resources for art writing – developed alongside I DID NOT KNOW THAT LENIN WAS LENIN, my current commission for the Merzman festival in Manchester.
As part of this project I began to explore how Lenin was/is figured in numerous texts by artists, writers and philosophers (both his contemporaries and our own). The quotations that follow chart a certain “artists’ Lenin” emergent through the work of Viktor Shklovsky (quoting Maxim Gorky), Sergei Eisenstein, “the young Roumanian Marcu”, and Dziga Vertov.
The Lenin that unfolds from these writings is, of course, highly partial and radically different to the Lenin of Lenin’s own writings, or of most historical account. Read in this way, the quotes propose a figure of Lenin composed of the radical (or not) nature of art practice, and the artists “eccentric” or otherwise stance-in-relation to reality… The images for this post are stills from Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin (1934).
This gathering also suggests how notions of legacy between artists – and between art, literature and politics – might be operating. The story by Marcu is quoted in and from the introduction to the Robert Motherwell edited The Dada Painters & Poets: An Anthology, a text with a history of influence and appropriation amongst artists and writers in New York and elsewhere, upon its publication in 1951 (a future post of the Demotic Archive will explore this influence further).
This sixth installment of the Demotic Archive concludes with Antonio Negri, whose The Porcelain Workshop: For A New Grammer of Politics, is a key text for the movement of philosophical ideas and methods into writing and art practices. The Negri quote here is from the first chapter of Porcelain. Negri is responding specifically to Lenin, and the “impasse” around conceptions of power in both Lenin, Max Weber and Carl Schmitt…
1. VIKTOR SHKLOVSKY
“It so happened that we had a free evening in London, and a small group of us went to a music hall, a small democratic theater. Vladimir Ilyich laughed easily and infectiously on watching the clowns and vaudeville acts, but he was only mildly interested in the rest. He watched with special interest as workers from British Columbia felled trees. The small stage represented a lumber yard, and in front, two hefty fellows within a minute chopped down a tree of about one meter circumference.
“‘ Well, of course, this is only for the audience. They can’t really work that fast, ‘ said Ilyich. ‘But, it’s obvious that they do work with axes there, too, making worthless chips out of the bulk of the tree. Here you have your cultured English-men!’
“He started talking about the anarchy of production under capitalism and ended by expressing regret that nobody had yet thought of writing a book on the subject. I didn’t quite follow this line of reasoning, but I had no time to question Vladimir Ilyich because he switched to an interesting dicussion on ‘eccentrism’ as a special form of theater art.
“‘ There is a certain satirical and skeptical attitude to the conventional, an urge to turn it inside out, to distort it slightly in order to show the illogic of the usual. Intricate but interesting.’
SOURCE: Viktor Shklovsky, Mayakovsky and his Circle (Pluto Press, London, 1972), 116-17. The story here is Shklovsky’s quotation of a text by Gorky.
2. SERGEI EISENSTEIN
“I have seen the Montagues in a tiny theater in Paris, the very same Montagues whom Vladimir Ilyich Lenin crossed the whole city to see…” (78)
“I notice with astonishment that today’s student, freed from the study of religious instruction reveals the same hostility to the study of dialectics. And I believe this is because, in the process of teaching this almighty shining miaculous method of cognition, the heavy hands of our sophists, catechists, Plisses and Perekhavalskys are too often laid on it.
Instead of an all-penetrating science, as it was understood and presented by Lenin; a science invoking us to study and reveal its nature and essence everywhere, in everything and over everything (“Begin with the most simple, ordinary, mass-evident, etc., from any premises: the leaves of the tree are green; Ivan is a man; Zhuchka is a dog, etc. Already here, as the genius of Hegel noted, is dialectics…”). Instead of this, the boring catechists, pettifogging pedants, and casuists come to the institutes, and in their hands the living spirit of the sorceress Dialectics disappears. All that remains is an indigestible skeleton of paragraphs, abstract propositions, and the perpetual motion of the vicious circle of once-and-for-all chosen quotations. (204)
SOURCE: Sergei Eisenstein, Immoral Memories: An Autobiography (Peter Owen, London, 1985).
3. YOUNG ROUMANIAN MARCU
When we left the restaurant, it was late in the afternoon. I walked home with Lenin.
“ ‘You see.’ he said, ‘why I take my meals here. You get to know what people are really talking about. Nadezhda Konstantinova is sure that only the Zurich underworld frequents this place, but I think she is mistaken. To be sure, Maria is a prostitute. But she does not like her trade. She has a large family to support – and that is no easy matter. As to Frau Prellog, she is perfectly right. Did you hear what she said! Shoot all the officers!
“ ‘Do you know the real meaning of this war?’
“‘ What is it?’ I asked.
“‘It is obvious,’he replied. ‘One slaveholder, Germany, who owns one hundred slaves, is fighting another slaveholder, England, who owns two hundred slaves, fora fairer distribution of the slaves.’
“‘ How can you expect to foster hatred of this war,’ I asked at this point, ‘ if you are not, in principle, against all wars? I thought that as a Bolshevik you were really a radical thinker and refused to make any compromise with the idea of war. But by recognizing the validity of some wars, you open the doors for every opportunity. Every group can find some justification of the particular war of which it approves. I see that we young people can only count on ourselves…’
“Lenin listened attentively, his head bent toward me. He moved his chair closer to mine… Lenin must have wondered whether he should continue to talk with this boy or not. I, somewhat awkwardly, remained silent.
“‘Your determination to rely upon yourselves,’ Lenin finally replied, ‘is very important. Every man must rely upon himself. Yet he should also listen to what informed people have to say. I don’t know how radical you are or how radical I am. I am certainly not radical enough. Once can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself…’”
4. DZIGA VERTOV
I’ve managed to make Three Songs About Lenin (at least to some degree) accessible and comprehensible to millions. But not at the price of cinematographic language, and not by abandoning the principles which had been formulated earlier. No one would demand this of us.
The important thing is not to separate form from content. The secret lies in unity of form and content. In refraining from shocking the spectator by introducing objects or devices that are unnatural or extraneous to the work. In 1933, while thinking about Lenin, I decided to draw from the source of the people’s creative folklore about Lenin. I would like to keep on working in this direction.
If he saw darkness, he created light.
From the desert, he made orchards.
From death – life.
A million sand grains make a dune.
A million peas make a bushel.
A million weak – a great strength.
Are these images and songs of nameless poets of the people any poorer than the images of the most refined formal works?
The subject in which I am working is the least studied, the most highly experimental subject of cinematography.
The road along which I am going, in an organizational, technical, down-to-earth manner, and in all other senses, demands superhuman efforts. It is a thankless and, believe me, a very difficult road.
But I am hopeful that, in my field, I will be able to defeat formalism, to defeat naturalism, to become a poet not for the few but for the ever increasing millions.
It is far from simple to show the truth.
But truth itself is simple.
SOURCE: “The Writings of Dziga Vertov”, in P.Adams Sitney, Film Culture: An Anthology (Secker and Warburg,1971), 364-5.
5. ANTONIO NEGRI
We are faced with a double impasse that seems to impose a necessary choice between two possibilities. The first consists in taking power and becoming another power, that is to say, inescapably remaining a power. The second attempts to totally deny the power exerted over life, and therefore emerges as a negation of life itself. From this point of view, the concept of proletarian power that we find in Lenin is completely symmetrical to that of bourgeois power. The concept of liberation is caught in the vise of power. Might we not imagine, on the contrary, that freedom, singularity and potency (puissance) come about as radical difference from power? (17-18)
SOURCE: Antonio Negri, The Porcelain Workshop: For A New Grammar of Politics (semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2008).