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Articles by Slavoj Žižek

It would be revealing to engage in a detailed account of how the Bolshevik movement related to medicine, to doctors taking care of the Leaders; three documents are crucial here:

1. Lenin's letters to Gorky from the Fall of 1913 in which, deeply disturbed by Gorky's support of the humanist ideology of the "construction of God," Lenin implies that Gorky succumbed to this deviation because of his bad nerves, and advises him to go to Switzerland and get there the best medical treatment. In one of the letters, after making it clear how he is shocked at Gorky's ideas -

Dear Alexei Maximovitch, what are you doing, then? Really, it is terrible, simply terrible! / Why are you doing this? It is terribly painful. Yours, V.I.

- Lenin adds a strange postscript:

P.S. Take care of yourself more seriously, really, so that you will be able to travel in winter without catching cold (in winter, it is dangerous).

Obviously, Lenin is worried that, apart from catching cold, Gorky will catch a much more serious ideological disease, as it is clear from the subsequent letter (posted together with the previous one):

Perhaps I don't understand you well? Perhaps you were joking when you wrote 'for the moment'? Concerning the 'construction of God,' perhaps you didn't write that seriously? Good heavens, take care of yourself a little bit better. Yours, Lenin.

What should surprise us here is the way the root of ideological deviation is located in a bodily condition (over-excited nerves) that needs medical treatment.

2. Stalin's speech at Lenin's funerals ("On the Death of Lenin") delivered on January 26 1924, which begins with:

Comrades, we Communists are people of a special mould. We are made of a special stuff. We are those who form the army of the great proletarian strategist, the army of Comrade Lenin. There is nothing higher than the honor of belonging to this army. There is nothing higher than the title of member of the Party whose founder and leader was Comrade Lenin. It is not given to everyone to be a member of such a party. It is not given to everyone to withstand the stresses and storms that accompany membership in such a party.

Lenin's still idiosyncratic obsession with the revolutionary's body is here as it were elevated into a concept: a Bolshevik "cadre" is perceived as the one who possesses a special body, not a body like others - which is why special care should be taken of it (and, eventually, the body deserves to be preserved in a mausoleum).

3. The fact that Stalin's last paranoiac obsession concerned the so-called "doctor's plot": all doctors who treated him and the top Soviet leadership were arrested and tortured to confess that they were part of an international US-Jewish conspiracy to kill the Soviet leadership. [1] Again, the continuity with the previous two points is clear: the doctors' crime is not merely to kill their ordinary human patients, but to kill the sacred bodies of revolutionary cadres.

So what is a "cadre"? One is tempted to play the Heideggerian game for a brief moment: we should discern in "cadre" the Ancient Greek tetragonos, as this word appears at the beginning of a poem by Simonides from the 5 century B.C.: "It is arduous to be an able, a truly able man: in hands and feet as well as in mind square /tetragonos/, without fault..." (The intermediary link between this Greek notion and the Communist one is none other than Kazimir Malevich's "Black Square on White Surface": the square figure against the nondescript background.) So, to put it in Heideggerese, the essence of the cadre is to provide a cadre (square, frame) for the essence itself.

Far from being a mere "metaphor," this notion of the cadre's special body is grounded in the logic of "objective meaning" shared by Lenin and Stalin: while ordinary individuals are caught in historical events which surpass them, blinded for their true meaning, so that their consciousness is "false," a revolutionary cadre has the access to the true ("objective") meaning of events, i.e., his consciousness is the direct self-consciousness of the historical Necessity itself. (It is this special position that allows him to criticize others in the well-known style of "your intentions may be good and your desire to help people sincere, but, nonetheless, objectively, what you claim means, in this precise moment of the struggle, a support for the reactionary forces..." - in Hegelese, what this position overlooks is how this "objective" meaning is already subjectively mediated. It is, for example, when the Party decides to change its politics that the same politics can radically change its "objective" meaning: till the pact Hitler-Stalin in 1939, Fascism was the principal enemy, while if, after the pact, one continued to focus on the anti-Fascist struggle, one "objectively" served the imperialist reaction.) And the cadre's sublime body is the ethereal support of this direct self-consciousness of the historical absolute Subject.

There is nonetheless a crucial cut here between Lenin and Stalin: while Lenin remained at this level, claiming the access to the "objective meaning" of the events, Stalin made a fateful step further and re-subjectivized this objective meaning. In the Stalinist universe, there are, paradoxically, ultimately no dupes, everyone knows the "objective meaning" of his/her acts, so that, instead of the illusory consciousness, we get direct hypocrisy and deceit: the "objective meaning" of your acts is what you REALLY WANTED, and your good intentions are merely a hypocritical mask. Furthermore, all of Lenin cannot be reduced to this subjective position of the privileged access to "objective meaning": there is another, much more "open," subjective position at work in Lenin's writings, the position of total exposure to historical contingency. From this position, there is no "true" party line waiting to be discovered, no "objective" criteria to determine it: the Party "makes all possible mistakes," and the "true" party line emerges out of the zig-zag of oscillations, i.e., "necessity" is constituted in praxis, it emerges through the mutual interaction of subjective decisions.

Historians who try to demonstrate the continuity between Lenin's politics and Stalinism like to focus on the figure of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Cheka (later GPU,NKVD, KGB...), the Bolshevik secret police: as a rule, he is portrayed as what Deleuze would have called the "dark precursor" of Stalinism, in the precise sense of the term defined by Ian Buchanan: "Dark precursors are those moments in a text which must be read in reverse if we are not to mistake effects for causes." [2] In the texture of the pre-Stalinist development of the Soviet Union in the first 10 years after the October Revolution, Dzerzhinsky has to be "read in reverse," as a voyager who travelled back in time from the Stalinist future a decade ahead. Such a reading often acquires properly fantasmatic dimensions, as in those historians who emphasize Dzerzhinsky's cold blank gaze, allegedly a bodily expression of his ruthless mind, deprived of all human warmth and compassion. No wonder, then, that the West received with chilled surprised the news that the Putin government in Russia decided to return the Dzerzhinsky statue to the square in front of the infamous Lubyanka palace, the seat of the dreaded KGB... There are, however, some surprises in store for those who cling to this received image. Lesley Chamberlain's The Philosophy Steamer, a book about the expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1921 of the group of most exposed non-Marxist intellectuals, a work which insists precisely on the straight path (if not direct continuity) between Leninism and Stalinism, has as an Appendix short biographical notes on all the persons involved - here is the entry on Dzerzhinsky:

FELIKS DZERZHINSKY (1877-1926) Polish-born head of the Cheka, later the GPU, oversaw the expulsions. Dzerzhinsky spent a quarter of his life - eleven years - in tsarist prisons and Siberian exile, including three years of hard labour. 'His identification with, and championship of, the underprivileged and the oppressed'(Leggett) [3] was unquestionable. Dzerzhinsky remains an enigmatic figure. [4]

There are many further details which throw an unexpected light on this emblematic figure; however, the point is not primarily to emphasize how much "softer," "more human," the early Bolsheviks were. One should in no way cover up the harshness of their rule - the point is elsewhere: precisely when they resorted to terror (and they often did it, openly, calling the beast by its name, "Red Terror"), this terror was of a different type in comparison with the Stalinist terror. Of course, many a historian, while ready to concede this point, would nonetheless insist that there was a deeper necessity which led from the first to the second: is the shift of ruthless revolutionary purity into corrupted terror not a commonplace of the histories of revolutions? No doubt the early Bolsheviks would have been shocked at what the Soviet Union turned into in the 1930s (as many of them were, and were also ruthlessly exterminated in the great purges); however, their tragedy was that they were not able to perceive in the Stalinist terror the ultimate offspring of their own acts. What they needed was their own version of the old Oriental insight "ta twam atsi" ("thou art that")... This accepted wisdom - which, let me state it clearly, cannot be dismissed as cheap anti-Communism: it has its own coherent logic, and it does acknowledge to the old Bolshevik guard a tragic grandeur - is what one should nonetheless render problematic. Here, the Left should propose its own alternative to the now fashionable Rightist What-If-histories: the answer to the eternal Leftist query "What would have happened if Lenin were to survive ten years longer with his health intact, and succeeded in deposing Stalin?" is not as clear as it may appear (basically, nothing - that is to say, nothing really different: the same Stalinism, just deprived of its worst excesses), in spite of many good arguments on its behalf (did Rosa Luxemburg herself not already back in 1918 foretold the rise of bureaucratic Stalinism?).

So, although it is clear how Stalinism emerged from the initial conditions of the October Revolution and its immediate aftermath, one should not a priori discount the possibility that, if Lenin were to retain his health for a couple of years and deposed Stalin, something entirely different would have emerged - not, of course, the utopia of "democratic socialism," but nonetheless something substantially different from the Stalinist "socialism in one country," the result of a much more "pragmatic" and improvisatory series of political and economic decisions, fully aware of its own limitations. (Lenin's desperate last struggle against the re-awakened Russian nationalism, his support of Georgian "nationalists," his vision of a much more decentralized federation, etc., were not just tactical compromises: they implied a vision of state and society in their entirety incompatible with the Stalinist one.)

Is the minimal difference in politics not the one between Nazism and Stalinism? In a letter to Herbert Marcuse from 20 January 1948, Heidegger wrote: "To the serious legitimate charges that you express 'about a regime that murdered millions of Jews...' I can merely add that if instead of 'Jews' you had written 'East Germans,' then the same holds true for one of the allies, with the difference that everything that has occurred since 1945 has become public knowledge, while the bloody terror of the Nazis in point of fact had been kept a secret from the German people." [5] Marcuse was fully justified in replying that the thin difference between brutally ex-patriating people and burning them in a concentration camp is the line that, at that moment, separated civilization from barbarism. One should not shirk from going even a step further: the thin difference between the Stalinist gulag and the Nazi annihilation camp also was, at that historical moment, the difference between civilization and barbarism.

The supreme example of what Lacan called the "empty speech," the speech whose denotative value (explicit content) is suspended on behalf of its functioning as an index of intersubjective relations between speaker and hearer, is the Stalinist jargon, the object of the science of "Kremlinology": "Before the Soviet-era archives opened wide, foreign scholars trying to make out what had happened, and what might come to pass, took abuse for relying upon hearsay: so-and-so had heard from so-and-so, who in turn had heard from someone in the camps, who was sure that ... [insert fantastic particulars here]. Critics of such hearsay-scholarship had a point. But what few people seem to realize, even now, is that the salient issue might not be the reliability in Stalin's Soviet Union of word of mouth and political divination, but its pervasiveness. Kremlinology arose not at Harvard, but in and around the Kremlin./.../ this was how the entire regime operated, and it was what everyone in the Soviet Union did to a degree, the more so the higher up. Amid the inter-ministerial warfare and Mobius-strip intrigues, Stalinist life and death remained opaque, no matter where you stood or whom you knew. It was at the same time formulaic and indeterminate.

In April 1939, /the nominal head of Comintern Georgi/ Dimitrov frets over his sudden omission in Pravda's coverage of one honor presidium and in Izvestiya's of another. His agitation eases when he learns that his portraits were borne aloft at the May Day parade, which quieted the ominous chitchat about him. But then it happened again. 'For the first time on International Women's Day I was not elected to the honor presidium,' he records on March 8, 1941. 'That, of course, is no accident.' Ah, but what did it mean? Dimitrov - who could scarcely have been closer to the Kremlin - was an inveterate Kremlinologist, studying Mausoleum choreography, divining omens, drowning in rumors." [6]

Another comical detail along these lines: the public prosecutor in the show trial against the "United Trotskyte-Zinovievite Centre" published a list of those that this "Centre" was planning to assassinate (Stalin, Kirov, Zhdanov...); this list became "a bizarre honor since inclusion signified proximity to Stalin." [7] Although Molotov was on good personal terms with Stalin, he was shocked to discover that he is not on the list: what did this sign mean? Just a warning from Stalin, or an indication that soon it will be his turn to be arrested? Indeed, the secret of the Egyptians were secrets also for the Egyptians themselves. It was the Stalinist Soviet Union which was the true "empire of signs."

A story told by Soviet linguist Eric Han-Pira provides a perfect example of the total semantic saturation of this "empire of signs," the semantic saturation which, precisely, relies on the emptying of direct denotative meaning. For many years, when the Soviet media announced the funeral ceremonies of a member of high nomenklatura, used a clichŽ formulation: "buried on Red Square by the Kremlin wall." In the 1960s, however, because of the lack of space, most of the newly deceased dignitaries were cremated and urns with their ashes were placed in niches inside the wall itself - yet the same old clichŽ was used in press statements. This incongruity compelled fifteen members of the Russian Language Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences to write a letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, suggesting that the phrase be modified to fit the current reality: "The urn with ashes was placed in the Kremlin wall." Several weeks later, a representative of the Central Committee phoned the Institute, informing them that the Central Committee had discussed their suggestion and decided to keep the old formulation; he gave no reasons for this decision. [8] According to the rules that regulate the Soviet "empire of signs," the CC was right: the change would not be perceived as simply registering the fact that dignitaries are now cremated and their ashes placed in the wall itself; any deviation from the standard formula would be interpreted as a sign, triggering a frenzied interpretive activity. So, since there was no message to be delivered, why change things? One may oppose to this conclusion the possibility of a simple "rational" solution: why not change the formulation and add an explanation that it means nothing, that it just registers a new reality? Such a "rational" approach totally misses the logic of the Soviet "empire of signs": since, in it, EVERYTHING has some meaning, even and ESPECIALLY a denial of meaning, such a denial would trigger an even more frantic interpretive activity - it would be read not only as a meaningful sign within a given, well established, semiotic space, but as a much stronger meta-semantic indication that the very basic rules of this semiotic space are changing, thus causing total perplexity, panic even! Some Soviet Leaders retained a sense of irony and displayed a dark sense of humor with regard to this total plasticity of facts; when, in early 1956, Anastas Mikoyan flew to Budapest to inform the Hungarian ultra-Stalinist leader Matyas Rakosi of the Moscow's decision to depose him, he told Rakosi: "The Soviet leadership has decided you are ill. You will need treatment in Moscow." [9]

It would be interesting to re-read, from this perspective, the model post-WWII Soviet textbooks on dialectical materialism, Mark Rozental's The Marxist Dialectical Method, whose first edition appeared in Moscow in 1951. In later reprints, long passages were omitted or rewritten; however, these changes had nothing whatsoever to do with author's further reflections on immanent philosophical problems - they are all to be read strictly in kremlinological terms, as signals of the shifts in the ideologico-political lines. The book, of course, relies on Stalin's "systematization" of the four "main features" of dialectical method (the unity of all phenomena; the dynamic nature of reality; the permanent development of reality; the "revolutionary" nature of this development which proceeds through sudden jumps, not only through continuous gradual change), from which, significantly, the "law" of the "negation of negation" is absent. (See Stalin's "On Dialectical and Historical Materialism.") In the subsequent edition of Rozental's book, the description of these four "main features" subtly changes: at some point, "negation of negation" is silently readmitted, etc. etc. These changes are kremlinological signals of the shifts in ideological-political constellation, the shifts of de-Stalinization which, paradoxically, began under Stalin himself under his instigation (see his two late essays on linguistics and economy, which paved the way for recognizing the relative autonomy and independence from class struggle of - some- sciences). The fact that "negation of negation" is posited as a fundamental ontological feature of reality, which appears as a claim about the basic ontological structure of reality, has thus nothing to do with the cognition of reality and all with shifts in ideologico-political constellation.

Is then Kremlinology not a kind of obscene double of Sovietology: the latter studies the Soviet regime objectively, through sociological data, statistics, power shifts, etc., the former as an obscure semiotic system... Till recently, traces of such semantically totally saturated space survived in the Chinese official discourse; in philosophy, they are sometimes comically combined with other features which bear witness to the "organized" and plannified character of philosophical research. I was told by a friend who visited the philosophy institute in one of (for us, Europeans) anonymous 2-4 millions Chinese cities, that, surprised, he discovered in the entrance hall a large display board, reporting on the achievements of the last 5-years-plan of philosophical research - which ontological, epistemological, aesthetic, etc. topics were clarified. So imagine a conversation with a member of this institute who, when asked about the existence of the table in front of him independently of his mind, he glibly answers: "Sorry, I cannot yet give you the definitive answers: according to our 5-years-plan, this topic will be dealt with only in 2008!"

Brecht allegedly remarked apropos of the accused at the Moscow show trials in the 1930s: "If they are innocent, they deserve all the more to be shot." This statement is thoroughly ambiguous - it can be read as the standard assertion of the radical Stalinism (your very insistence on your individual innocence, your refusal to sacrifice yourself for the Cause, bears witness to your guilt which resides in giving preference to your individuality over the larger interests of the Party), or it can be read as its opposite, in a radically anti-Stalinist way: if they were in a position to plot and execute the killing of Stalin and his entourage, and were "innocent" (i.e., did not grasp the opportunity and do it), they effectively deserved to die for failing to rid us of Stalin. The true guilt of the accused is thus that, instead of rejecting the very ideological frame of Stalinism and ruthlessly acting against Stalin, they narcissistically fell in love with their victimization and either protested their innocence or got fascinated by the ultimate sacrifice they delivered to the Party by confessing their non-existent crimes. So the properly dialectical way of grasping the imbrication of these two meanings would have been to start with the first reading, followed by the common sense moralistic reaction to Brecht: "But how can you claim something so ruthless? Can such a logic which demands the blind self-sacrifice for the accusatory whims of the Leader not function only within a terrifying criminal totalitarian universe - far from accepting these rules, it is the duty of every ethical subject to fight such a universe with all means possible, including the physical removal (killing) of the totalitarian leadership?" "So you see how, if the accused were innocent, they deserve all the more to be shot - they effectively WERE in a position to organize a plot to get us rid of Stalin and his henchmen, and missed this unique opportunity to spare humanity from terrible crimes!" [10] One can also discern the same ambiguity in the infamous statement usually (although wrongly) attributed to Herrmann Goering: "When I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my pistol." Goering's intended meaning was probably that he is ready to defend the high German culture with arms, if necessary, against the Jews and other barbarians, however, the true meaning is that he himself is the barbarian who explodes with violence when confronting true works of culture...

Rousseau heroically went to the "Stalinist" extreme in pursuing the paradox of the universal will:

Apart from this primitive contract, the vote of the majority always binds all the rest. This follows from the contract itself. But it is asked how a man can be both free and forced to conform to wills that are not his own. How are the opponents at once free and subject to laws they have not agreed to?
I retort that the question is wrongly put. The citizen gives his consent to all the laws, including those which are passed in spite of his opposition, and even those which punish him when he dares to break any of them. The constant will of all the members of the State is the general will; by virtue of it they are citizens and free. When in the popular assembly a law is proposed, what the people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is their will. Each man, in giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is found by counting votes. When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so. If my particular opinion had carried the day I should have achieved the opposite of what was my will; and it is in that case that I should not have been free."(SC, Book II, Chapter 2, "Voting")

The "totalitarian" catch here is the short-circuit between constative and performative: by reading the voting procedure not as a performative act of decision, but as a constative, as the act of expressing the opinion on (of guessing )what is the general will (which is thus substantialized into something that PRE-EXISTS voting), he avoids the deadlock of the rights of those who remain in the minority (they should obey the decision of the majority, because in the result of voting, they learn what the general will really is). In other words, those who remain in the minority are not simply a minority: in learning the result of the vote (which run against their individual vote), they do not simply learn that they are a minority - what they learn is that they were MISTAKEN about what is the general will.

The parallel between this substantialization of the general will and the religious notion of Predestination cannot but strike the eye: in the case of Predestination, fate is also substantialized into a decision that precedes the process, so that the stake of individuals' activities is not to performatively constitute their fate, but to discover (or guess) one's pre-existing fate. What is obfuscated in both cases is the dialectical reversal of contingency into necessity, i.e., the way the outcome of a contingent process is the appearance of necessity: things retroactively "will have been" necessary." This reversal was described by Dupuy:

The catastrophic event is inscribed into the future as a destiny, for sure, but also as a contingent accident: it could not have taken place, even if, in futur anterieur, it appears as necessary. /.../ if an outstanding event takes place, a catastrophy, for example, it could not not have taken place; nonetheless, insofar as it did not take place, it is not inevitable. It is thus the event's actualization - the fact that it takes place - which retroactively creates its necessity. [11]

Dupuy provides the example of the French presidential elections in May 1995; here is the January forecast of the main polling institute: "If, on next May 8, Ms Balladur will be elected, one can say that the presidential election was decided before it even took place."(20) If - accidentally - an event takes place, it creates the preceding chain which makes it appear inevitable: THIS, not the common places on how the underlying necessity expresses itself in and through the accidental play of appearances, is in nuce the Hegelian dialectics of contingency and necessity. The same goes for October Revolution (once the Bolsheviks won and stabilized their hold on power, their victory appeared as an outcome and expression of a deeper historical necessity), and even of Bush's much contested first US presidential victory (after the contingent and contested Florida majority, his victory retroactively appears as an expression of a deeper US political trend). In this sense, although we are determined by destiny, we are nonetheless free to choose our destiny. This, according to Dupuy, is also how we should approach the ecological crisis: not to "realistically" appraise the possibilities of the catastrophy, but to accept it as Destiny in the precise Hegelian sense: like the election of Balladur, "if the catastrophy will happen, one can say that its occurrence was decided before it even took place." Destiny and free action (to block the "if") thus go hand in hand: freedom is at its most radical the freedom to change one's Destiny.

What one should bear in mind is how Predestination is totally foreign to its Eastern counterpart, reincarnation. What they both share is the idea that my present state is predetermined - however, in the first case, it is by the inscrutable and contingent divine decision which precedes my existence and thus has nothing whatsoever to do with my acts, while, in the second case, it is by my own acts in my previous lives, which make my present predicament nonetheless dependent on me. What gets lost in the notion of reincarnation is the irreducible gap between virtue and grace, between my character and my fate, i.e., the utter contingency and externality of my fate with regard to my character. The same point can be also made in the terms of the relationship between eternity and time: the a-temporal conceptual eternity (the "eternal Truth" of a notion) is nonetheless something which emerges in time, from within a specific constellation - in exactly the same way that "if Balladur will be elected, one can say that the presidential election was decided before it even took place," if a Truth arises, is formulated, out of a unique historical constellation, one can say that this Truth was valid before it even was formulated"... Or, as Descartes put it apropos necessary truths: "To say that God willed certain truths to be necessary is not the same as saying that He willed them necessarily" - the very necessity of these truths is grounded in the contingency of the divine will.

Friedrich Nietzsche was THE philosopher of immoral ethics, and we should always remember that the title of Friedrich Nietzsche's masterpiece is "genealogy of morals," NOT "of ethics": the two are not the same. Morality is concerned with the symmetry of my relations to other humans; its zero-level rule is "do not do to me what you do not want me to do to you" [12]; ethics, on the contrary, deals with my consistency with myself, my fidelity to my own desire. On the back flyleaf of the 1939 edition of Lenin's Materialism and Empiriocriticism, Stalin made the following note in red pencil:

1) Weakness
2) Idleness
3) Stupidity
These are the only things than can be called vices. Everything else, in the absence of the aforementioned, is undoubtedly virtue.

NB! If a man is 1) strong (spiritually), 2) active, 3) clever (or capable), then he is good, regardless of any other 'vices'!
1) plus 3) make 2). [13]

This is as concise as ever a formulation of immoral ethics; in contrast to it, a weakling who obeys moral rules and worries about his guilt, stands for unethical morality, the target of Nietzsche's critique of ressentiment. - There is, however, a limit to Stalinism: not that it is too immoral, but that it is secretly too moral, still relying on a figure of the big Other. In what is arguably the most intelligent legitimization of the Stalinist terror, Maurice Merlau-Ponty's Humanism and Terror from 1946, the terror is justified as a kind of wager on the future, almost in the mode of the theology of Blaise Pascal who enjoins us to make a bet on God: if the final result of today's horror will be the bright Communist future, then this outcome will retroactively redeem the terrible things a revolutionary has to do today. Along similar lines, even some Stalinists themselves, when (in half-private, usually) forced to admit that many of the victims of the purges were innocent, and were accused and killed because "the Party needed their blood to fortify its unity," imagine the future moment of final victory at which all the necessary victims will be given their due, and their innocence and their highest sacrifice for the Cause will be recognized. This is what Lacan, in his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, refers to as the "perspective of the Last Judgment," a perspective even more clearly discernible in one of they key terms of the Stalinist discourse, that of "objective guilt" and "objective meaning" of your acts: while you can be an honest individual who acted with most sincere intentions, you are nonetheless "objectively guilty," if your acts serve reactionary forces - and it is, of course, the Party which has the direct access to what your acts "objectively mean." Here, again, we not only get the perspective of the Last Judgment (which formulates the "objective meaning" of your acts), but also the present agent who already has the unique ability to judge today's events and acts from this perspective. [14]

We can see now why Lacan's motto il n'y a pas de grand Autre /there is no big Other/" brings us to the very core of the ethical problematic: what it excludes is precisely this "perspective of the Last Judgment," the idea that somewhere - even if as a thoroughly virtual point of reference, even if we concede that we cannot ever occupy its place and pass the actual judgment - there must be a standard which allows us to take measure of our acts and pronounce their "true meaning," their true ethical status. Even Jacques Derrida's notion of "deconstruction as justice" seems to rely on a utopian hope which sustains the specter of "infinite justice," forever postponed, always to come, but nonetheless here as the ultimate horizon of our activity.

The harshness of the Lacanian ethics is that it demands us to thoroughly relinquish this reference - and its further wager is that, not only does this abdication not deliver us to an ethical insecurity or relativism, or even sap the very fundaments of ethical activity, but that renouncing the guarantee of some big Other is the very condition of a truly autonomous ethics. Recall that the dream about Irma's injection that Freud used as the exemplary case to illustrate his procedure of analyzing dreams is a dream about responsibility (Freud's own responsibility for the failure of his treatment of Irma) - this fact alone indicates that responsibility is a crucial Freudian notion. But how are we to conceive it? How are we to avoid the common misperception that the basic ethical message of psychoanalysis is, precisely, the one of relieving me of my responsibility, of putting the blame on the Other: "since the Unconscious is the discourse of the Other, I am not responsible for its formations, it is the big Other who speaks through me, I am merely its instrument"? Lacan himself pointed the way out of this deadlock by referring to Kant's philosophy as the crucial antecedent of the psychoanalythic ethics.

According to the standard critique, the limitation of the Kantian universalist ethic of the "categorical imperative" (the unconditional injunction to do our duty) resides in its formal indeterminacy: moral Law does not tell me what my duty is, it merely tells me that I should accomplish my duty, and so leaves the space open for the empty voluntarism (whatever I decide to be my duty is my duty). However, far from being a limitation, this very feature brings us to the core of the Kantian ethical autonomy: it is not possible to derive the concrete norms I have to follow in my specific situation from the moral Law itself - which means that the subject himself has to assume the responsibility of translating the abstract injunction of the moral Law into a series of concrete obligations. The full acceptance of this paradox compels us to reject any reference to duty as an excuse: "I know this is heavy and can be painful, but what can I do, this is my duty..." Kant's ethics of unconditional duty is often taken as justifying such an attitude - no wonder Adolf Eichmann himself referred to Kantian ethics when he tried to justify his role in planning and executing the Holocaust: he was just doing his duty and obeying the Fuhrer's orders. However, the aim of Kant's emphasis on the subject's full moral autonomy and responsibility is precisely to prevent any such manoeuvre of putting the blame onto some figure of the big Other.

Although Beria was personally thoroughly corrupted and perverted (his sport was kidnapping girls from Moscow streets and raping them), in the months after Stalin's death in 1953, he freed millions from gulag, made ouvertures to the West with regard to German unification, hinted at greater freedom for artists - the coup against him was done by the nomenklatura scared that he is going too far, it was NOT a coup of "closet revisionists" against the hard-line Stalinist. So we can imagine an interesting alternative history - what would have happened if Beria were to win? End of Cold War already in mid-1950s?

Recall the adventure of Shostakovich's interrogation by the KGB in 1937:

I was given a [security] pass and went to the [NKVD] office. The investigator got up when I came in and greeted me. He was very friendly and asked me to sit down. He started asking questions about my health, my family, the work I was doing - all kinds of questions. He spoke in a very friendly, welcoming and polite way. Then suddenly he asked me: 'So, tell me. Do you know Tukhachevsky?' I said yes, and he said 'How?'. So then I said: 'At one of my concerts. After the concert, Tukhachevsky came backstage to congratulate me. He said he liked my music, that he was an admirer. He said he'd like to meet me when he came to Leningrad to talk about music. He said it would be a pleasure to discuss music with me. He said if I came to Moscow he'd be happy to see me.' 'And how often did you meet?' 'Only when Tukhachevsky came here. He usually invited me for dinner.' - 'Who else was at the table?' 'Just his family. His family and relatives.' - 'And what did you discuss?' 'Mostly music.' - 'Not politics?' 'No, we never talked politics. I knew how things were.' - 'Dmitri Dmitryevich, this is very serious. You must remember. Today is Saturday. I'll sign your pass and you can go home. But on Monday noon, you must be here. Don't forget now. This is very serious, very important.' I understood this was the end. Those two days until Monday were a nightmare. I told my wife I probably wouldn't return. She even prepared a bag for me - the kind prepared for people who were taken away. She put in warm underwear. She knew I wouldn't be back. I went back there at noon [on Monday] and reported to reception. There was a soldier there. I gave him my [[[internal]]] passport. I told him I'd been summoned. He looked for my name: first, second, third list. He said: 'Who summoned you?' I said: 'Inspector Zakovsky.' He said: 'He won't be able to see you today. Go home. We'll notify you.' He returned my passport and I went home. It was only later that evening that I learned that the inspector had been arrested. [15]

If there ever was a carnival in which today you are a king and tomorrow a beggar, this was it! [16] A common sense reproach nonetheless imposes itself here: is there not a rather obvious fundamental difference between the carnival proper and the Stalinist purges? In the first case, the entire social hierarchy is momentarily suspended, those who were up are down and vice versa, while, in the case of Stalinism, the unexpected and "irrational" change of fortunes affects only those who are subjected to power - far from being threatened, far from its power being even symbolically suspended, the Communist nomenklatura uses the "irrational" shifts of arbitrary terror to fortify its rule... There are, however, moments of paroxysm in which revolutionary terror effectively reaches carnivalesque dimensions, i.e., in which, like the proverbial snake, the ruling Party starts to eat itself, gradually swallowing its own tail. The surprising fact that "the most dangerous place to be was close to the centres of power" clearly distinguishes Stalinism from Fascist regimes - here are the results of the mere 2 years of yezhovshchina: "Five of Stalin's Politburo colleagues were killed, and 98 out of 139 Central Committee members. Of the Central Committee of the Ukraine Republic only three out of 200 survived; 72 of the 93 members of the Komsomol organization Central Committee perished. Out of 1.996 party leaders at the Seventeenth Congress in 1934, 1.108 were imprisoned or murdered. In the provinces 319 out of 385 regional party secretaries and 2.210 out of 2.750 district secretaries died." [17] This self-devouring frenzy renders problematic the theory of Stalinist Nomenklatura as the New Class.

In his analysis of the paranoia of the German judge Schreber, Freud reminds us that what we usually consider as madness (the paranoiac scenario of the conspiracy against the subject) is effectively already an attempt at recovery: after the complete psychotic breakdown, the paranoiac construct is an attempt of the subject to reestablish a kind of order in his universe, a frame of reference enabling him to acquire a "cognitive mapping." Along the same lines, one is tempted to claim that, when, in late 1937, the Stalinist paranoiac discourse reached its apogee and set in motion its own dissolution as a social link, the 1938 arrest and liquidation of Yezhov himself, Stalin's main executioner in 1937, was effectively the attempt at recovery, at stabilizing the uncontrolled fury of self-destruction that broke out in 1937: the purge of Yezhov was a kind of meta-purge, the purge to end all purges (he was accused precisely of killing thousands of innocent Bolsheviks on behalf of foreign powers - the irony of it being that the accusation was literally true: he did organize the killing of the thousands of innocent Bolsheviks...). However, the crucial point is that, although we are here reaching the limits of the Social, the level at which the social-symbolic link itself is approaching its self-destructive dissolution, this excess itself was nonetheless generated by a precise dynamic of the social struggle, by a series of shifting alignments and realignments between the very top of the regime (Stalin and his narrow circle), the upper Nomenklatura and the rank-and-file Party members:

Thus in 1933 and 1935 Stalin and the Politburo united with all levels of the Nomenklatura elite to screen, or purge, a helpless rank and file. The regional leaders then used those purges to consolidate their machines and expel 'inconvenient' people. This, in turn, brought about another alignment in 1936, in which Stalin and the Moscow Nomenklatura sided with the rank and file, who complained of repression by the regional elites. In 1937 Stalin openly mobilized the 'party masses' against the Nomenklatura as a whole; this provided an important strand in the Great Terror's destruction of the elite. But in 1938 the Politburo changed alignments and reinforced the authority of the regional Nomenklatura as part of an attempt to restore order in the party during the terror. [18]

The situation thus exploded when Stalin made a risky move of directly appealing to the lower rank-and-file members themselves, soliciting them to articulate their complaint against the arbitrary rule of the local Party bosses (a move similar to the Mao's Great Cultural Revolution) - their fury at the regime, unable to express itself directly, exploded all the more viciously against the personalized substitute targets. Since the upper Nomenklatura at the same time retained its executive power also in the purges themselves, this set in motion a properly carnivalesque self-destructive vicious cycle in which virtually everyone was threatened (of 82 district Party secretaries, 79 were shot). Another aspect of the spiralling vicious cycle were the very fluctuations of the directives from the top as to the thoroughness of the purges: the top demanded harsh measures, while at the same time warning against excesses, so the executors were put in an untenable position - ultimately, whatever they did was wrong. If they did not arrest enough traitors and discover enough conspiracies, they were considered lenient and supporting counterrevolution; so, under this pressure, in order to meet the quota, as it were, they had to fabricate evidence and invent plots - thereby exposing themselves to the criticism that they are themselves saboteurs, destroying thousands of honest Communists on behalf of the foreign powers... Stalin's strategy of addressing directly the party masses, co-opting their antibureucratic attitudes, was thus very risky:

This not only threatened to open elite politics to public scrutiny but also risked discrediting the entire Bolshevik regime, of which Stalin himself was a part. /.../ Finally, in 1937, Stalin broke all the rules of the game - indeed, destroyed the game completely - and unleashed a terror of all against all. [19]

One can discern very precisely the superego dimension of these events: this very violence inflicted by the Communist Power on its own members bears witness to the radical self-contradiction of the regime, i.e. to the fact that, at the origins of the regime, there was an "authentic" revolutionary project - incessant purges were necessary not only to erase the traces of the regime's own origins, but also as a kind of "return of the repressed," a reminder of the radical negativity at the heart of the regime. The Stalinist purges of high Party echelons relied on this fundamental betrayal: the accused were effectively guilty insofar as they, as the members of the new Nomenklatura, betrayed the Revolution. The Stalinist terror is thus not simply the betrayal of the Revolution, i.e. the attempt to erase the traces of the authentic revolutionary past; it rather bears witness to a kind of "imp of perversity" which compels the post-revolutionary new order to (re)inscribe its betrayal of the Revolution within itself, to "reflect" it or "remark" it in the guise of arbitrary arrests and killings which threatened all members of the Nomenklatura - as in psychoanalysis, the Stalinist confession of guilt conceals the true guilt. (As is well known, Stalin wisely recruited into the NKVD people of lower social origins who were thus able to act out their hatred of the Nomenklatura by arresting and torturing high apparatchiks.) This inherent tension between the stability of the rule of the new Nomenklatura and the perverted "return of the repressed" in the guise of the repeated purges of the ranks of the Nomenklatura is at the very heart of the Stalinist phenomenon: purges are the very form in which the betrayed revolutionary heritage survives and haunts the regime... So what about the Leader itself who, while setting in motion and secretly pulling the strings of the self-destructive carnival, nonetheless remains exempted from its shifts: at no moment was there ever a serious threat that Stalin (or Mao) himself should be ritualistically deposed, treated as "yesterday a king, today a beggar"? One should specify here the role of the Leader: he was exempted from these shifts of fortune because he was not the traditional Master, but the "Lord of Misrule":

In the European Middle Ages it was customary for great households to choose a 'Lord of Misrule.' The person chosen was expected to preside over the revels that briefly reversed or parodied the conventional social and economic hierarchies. /.../When the brief reign of misrule was over, the customary order of things would be restored: the Lords of Misrule would go back to their menial occupations, while their social superiors resumed their wonted status. /.../ sometimes the idea of Lord of Misrule would spill over from the realm of revel to the realm of politics. /.../ the apprentices took over from their guild masters for a reckless day or two, /.../ gender roles were reversed for a day as the women took over the tasks and airs normally associated only with men. / Chinese philosophers also loved the paradoxes of status reversed, the ways that wit or shame could deflate pretension and lead to sudden shifts of insight. /.../ It was Mao's terrible accomplishment to seize on such insights from earlier Chinese philosophers, combine them with elements drawn from Western socialist thought, and to use both in tandem to prolong the limited concept of misrule into a long-drawn-out adventure in upheaval. To Mao, the former lords and masters should never be allowed to return; he felt they were not his betters, and that society was liberated by their removal. He also thought the customary order of things should never be restored." [20]

Is, however, such a "terrible accomplishment" not the elementary gesture of every true revolutionary? Why revolution at all, if we do not think that "the customary order of things should never be restored?" What Mao does is to deprive the transgression of its ritualized, ludic character by way of taking it seriously: revolution is not just a temporary safety valve, a carnivalesque explosion destined to be followed by a sobering morning after - it is by definition a PERMANENT revolution, the "misrule" is here to stay.

The shift from the Leninism of the 20s to the Stalinism proper of the 30s is discernible even at the level of humor in the inner party debates. [21] A certain kind of humor was always part of the Bolshevik debates - Lenin himself said at the 11th Party Congress in 1922 that "a joke is a very good thing: we cannot make speeches without cracking a joke here and there"(247). This humor was sometimes rough, sarcastic, with ice-biting irony, but still part of a dialogue of party comrades - to quote Hamlet on the way to his mother in the Act III of the play: "I will speak daggers to her, but use none." Furthermore, humor and sarcasm in polemical exchanges were strictly symmetrical - say, during the debate between the Leninist majority and the Workers' Opposition in 1921, both sides not only resorted to sarcastic and ironic remarks, but also replied in the same way to their opponents' remarks, by turning them around, extrapolating them to the ridicule, etc. In the 1930s, however, a much more cruel form of sarcasm predominated, which the Soviet press itself called "the victors' laughter": making fun of and laughing at the ridiculous excuses of the impotent and humiliated victims who tried to convince others of their honesty. Examples abound - Vyshinsky, the Public Prosecutor, shouted at Kamenev and Zinoviev during the famous show trial: "Drop this clownish farce!" When Smirnow, a defendant at the same trial, denied that he was a terrorist, he was told: "The pathetic attempt to wriggle free is quite comical." Along the same lines, the Kafkaesque quality of the eerie laughter that erupted among the public during Bukharin's last speech in front of the Central Committee on 23 February 1937 hinges on the radical discord between the speaker's utter seriousness (he is talking about his possible suicide, and why he will not commit it, since it could hurt the Party, but will rather go on with the hunger strike till his death) and the reaction of the Central Committee members:

BUKHARIN: I won't shoot myself because then people will say that I killed myself so as to harm the party. But if I die, as it were, from an illness, then what will you lose by it? (Laughter.)
VOICES: Blackmailer!
VOROSHILOV: You scoundrel! Keep your trap shut! How vile! How dare you speak like that!
BUKHARIN: But you must understand - it's very hard for me to go on living.
STALIN: And it's easy for us?
VOROSHILOV: Did you hear that: 'I won't shoot myself, but I will die"?
BUKHARIN: It's easy for you to talk about me. What will you lose, after all? Look, if I am a saboteur, a son of a bitch, then why spare me? I make no claims to anything. I am just describing what's on my mind, what I am going through. If this in any way entails any political damage, however minute, then, no question about it, I'll do whatever you say. (Laughter.) Why are you laughing? There is absolutely nothing funny about any of this... [22]

The same uncanny laughter also appeared at other places:

BUKHARIN: Whatever they are testifying against me is not true. (Laughter, noise in the room.) Why are you laughing? There is nothing funny in all this." [23]

Do we not have here, enacted in real life, the uncanny logic of Josef K.'s first interrogation in The Trial? -

'Well, then,' said the Examining Magistrate, turning over the leaves and addressing K. with an air of authority, 'you are a house-painter?' 'No,' said K., 'I'm the junior manager of a large Bank.' This answer evoked such a hearty outburst of laughter from the Right party that K. had to laugh too. People doubled up with their hands on their knees and shook as if in spasms of coughing. [24]

In such a universe, of course, there is no place for even the most formal and empty right of subjectivity, on which Bukharin continues to insist:

BUKHARIN: /.../ I confessed that from 1930 to 1932 I committed many political sins. I have come to understand this. But with the same forcefulness with which I confess my real guilt, with that same forcefulness I deny the guilt which is thrust upon me, and I shall deny it forever. And not because it has only personal significance, but because I believe that no one should under any circumstances take upon himself anything superfluous, especially when the party doesn't need it, when the country doesn't need it, when I don't need it. (Noise in the room, laughter)

The whole tragedy of my situation lies in this, that this Piatakov and others like him so poisoned the atmosphere, such an atmoshere arose that no one believes human feelings - not emotions, not the impulses of the heart, not tears. (Laughter.) Many manifestations of human feeling, which had earlier represented a form of proof - and there was nothing shameful in this - have today lost their validity and force.
KAGANOVICH: You practiced too much duplicity!
BUKHARIN: Comrades, let me say the following concerning what happened...
KHLOPLIAKIN: It's time to throw you in prison!
KHLOPLIAKIN: You should have been thrown in prison a long time ago!
BUKHARIN: Well, go on, throw me in prison. So you think the fact that you are yelling: 'Throw him in prison!' will make me talk differently? No, it won't. [25]

It is easy to see how this shift in humor depends on the passage from the Leninist "objective meaning" of one's acts to its Stalinist re-subjectivization: since, in the Stalinist universe, there are ultimately no dupes, and everyone knows the "objective meaning" of his/her acts, the disagreement with the official Party line can only be the result of direct hypocrisy and deceit. What is more surprising is the readiness of the Western Communist observers to perceive this hypocrisy as a true psychological fact about the accused. In a letter to Benjamin from 1938, Adorno reports about a conversation he had with Hans Eisler in New York:

I listened with not a little patience to his feeble defence of the Moscow trials, and with considerable disgust to the joke he cracked about the murder of Bukharin. He claims to have known the latter in Moscow, telling me that Bukharin's conscience was already so bad that he could not even look him, Eisler, honestly in the eyes. [26]


  1. Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin's Last Crime, New York: Harper & Collins 2003.
  2. Ian Buchanan, Deleuzism, Durham: Duke University Press 2000, p. 5.
  3. The reference is to George Leggett, The Cheka: Lenin's Political Police, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1981.
  4. Lesley Chamberlain, The Philosophy Steamer, London: Atlantic Books 2006, p. 315-316.
  5. Quoted in Berel Lang, op.cit., p. 21.
  6. Stephen Kotkin, "A Conspiracy So Immense", The New Republic Online, 02.13.06.
  7. Simon Montefiore, Stalin. The Court of the Red Tsar, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2003, p. 168.
  8. Alexei Yurchak's wonderful Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2006, p. 52.
  9. Quoted from Victor Sebestyen, Twelve Days, New York: Pantheon Books 2006.
  10. Although the same reversal also works in the opposite direction. Recently in Slovenia, the public prosecutor started a procedure against an old Communist functionary involved in show trials and mass killings without trial of the members of the Slovene anti-Communist units imprisoned immediately after the end of the WWII. After the event was announced in the media, I accidentally met another unrepentant old Communist cadre and asked him for a reaction; to my surprise, he told me that the accused functionary fully deserved the harshest punishment, and he added: "Not for what he is accused, of course, but for his true crime, decades later, of allowing the Communists to lose power!"
  11. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Petite métaphysique des tsunami, Paris: Seuil 2005, p. 19.
  12. Which is why the best psychoanalytic reply to this moral maxim is to imagine what would have meant for a masochist to promise us that he will follow it in relating to us.
  13. First published in Russian in Pravda, 21 December 1994. Beneath this note, Stalin appended in blue pencil: "Alas, what do we see, what do we see?" The translation quoted from Donald Rayfield, Stalin and His Hangmen, London: Penguin Books 2004, p. 22.
  14. The same goes for such a radical hedonist atheist like Marquis de Sade: perspicuous readers of his work (like Pierre Klossowski) guessed long ago that the compulsion to enjoy which drives the Sadean libertine implies a hidden reference to a hidden divinity, to what Lacan called the "Supreme-Being-of-Evil," an obscure God demanding to be fed with the suffering of the innocents.
  15. Available online at
  16. Boris Groys, "Totalitarizm karnavala," Bakhtinskii zbornik III, Moscow: Labirinth 1997.
  17. Richard Overy, The Dictators, London: Penguin Books 2004, p. 100-101.
  18. J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror. Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-39, New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1999, p. 14.
  19. ibid.
  20. Jonathan Spence, Mao, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1999, p. xii-xiv.
  21. Igal Halfin, "The Bolsheviks' Gallows Laughter," Journal of Political Ideologies, October 2006, p. 247-268.
  22. J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror. Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-39, New Haven and London: Yale University Press 1999, p. 370.
  23. Op.cit., p. 394.
  24. Franz Kafka, The Trial, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1985, p. 48.
  25. Getty and Naumov, op.cit., p. 322.
  26. Theodor W.Adorno and Walter Benjamnin, The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940, Cambridge (Ma): Harvard University Press 1999, p. 252.