What would it mean to lose?: On the history of actually-existing failure

By Bini Adamczak & Anna Dost

In the hour of defeat, the Soviet Union scores one final applause. In the moment of its failure, in foregoing revenge and unnecessary bloodshed, it renews one last time that peaceful and humanist utopia that forms the core of Marxist ideology and that has been so besmirched by the Bolsheviks during their time in power.

– Rainer Bohn, 1991

Measured against their promise to end exploitation and oppression, and to enable everybody to lead a life without hunger or identity cards, they all failed – the lefts.

First of all, those who – usually rather furtively – reneged on this promise, or betrayed it. That is, social democrats of all hues: red, green or something in between. And no matter whether they were organised as a party, a trade union or a pipe smokers’ club. Then, all those who could feel betrayed at all by this, because they had remained true to the promise of at some point turning the world, as a whole, to the left. Council communists and anarcha-feminists, republicans and communards, all the principled militants who bravely scaled the barricades – and stayed there. That is, if they were not, in the end, finished off by those whose success was precisely their failure, those who took over the world and neglected to change it. Those, in other words, who won themselves – but first, all the others – to death: Leninists, (post-)Stalinists, state socialists.

They all failed, and now nobody wants to own up to it. Not the social democrats, because they never really wanted to win – and so they couldn’t really lose either. Not the anarchists, because the (moral) responsibility for their failure lay not with themselves, but only and exclusively with their enemies. They failed, but it wasn’t their fault. Nor the communists, because their actions could not yet be judged in the present, but only from the perspective of the communist future. This future was, of course, hitherto entirely unknown – save for the fact that it accepted even the most heinous means, if only they led to that most hallowed end – namely this very future.

From this vantage point, the enormous sigh of 1989–1991 can also be understood as proclaiming not only the abdication of an empire but also that of its and – according to its universal promise – our future. Suddenly the communists, who had always trusted in the laws of progress, had nowhere else to go. There was no ‘forward’ anymore. Where previously there had been a chain of events, in hindsight there was only one single catastrophe, a mountain of debt that ceaselessly piled bill upon bill, until suddenly they all became due 73 years later.

To be sure, towards the end of the 1980s, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was already on the brink of economic insolvency because of high levels of government debt. Around 1987, researchers at the Institute for Economics at the Academy of Sciences had calculated that there were not enough resources for the subsidies of the daily means of subsistence – bread and milk, pasta and shoes, rents, energy and train tickets – to continue beyond two years. It was thus obvious that the strategy Reagan had embarked on in 1981, of defeating the Soviet Union in the arms race, would soon be successful. Given that the Eastern Bloc states could barely cope with the required investments in high technology, and that even constructing a conventional tank required twice the effort – Soviet labour productivity being half that of the United States – the economic defeat of actually-existing socialism was already on the horizon years before the eventual collapse.

The defeat, yes, but not the failure. For socialism – which, as we know, defines itself primarily not through the development of the forces of production, but through the revolution of the relations of production – had failed much earlier still. Socialism had failed with the sacking of the councils, the bureaucratisation of the economy, the giving up of workers’ control, the suppression of the trade unions. In 1921, with the prohibition of Workers’ Opposition and the crushing of the Kronstadt uprising – neither of which had done much more than recall the socialist promises of the October Revolution – the goal of the classless society had already died. The years 1989–1991 thus simply marked the final becoming apparent of this death that had occurred seven decades before, and that had been masked only by the lipstick of propaganda.

In 1989–1991, anti-communism won over its many diverse and divided enemies. But it was not communism that failed – but at most the last, entirely feeble attempt at its rescue. From this perspective, the date becomes part of the chain of attempted reforms that took place after Stalin’s death, from the uprising in Hungary in 1956 to the Prague Spring of 1968. Just as it had after Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ of 1956, hope once again came from above, from Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika, from the tentative attempts to break open the incrustations of bureaucracy that began in 1987. Only four years later, in August 1991, Yeltsin proscribed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, thus accelerating the foreseeable end of the USSR. Another window had closed out of what the (anti-)German journalist Wolfgang Pohrt called, the “very old and ultimately dull game, whose variations are called exploitation, oppression and war”.

In his User Manual for the Past, Enzo Traverso pointed out that the ‘end of history’ also transforms the politics of memory and history. In the GDR, those who had been persecuted by National Socialism were divided into two groups, one scorned and the other feted: the victims of fascism and the fighters against fascism. The fighters were – after the fact – declared winners in the ‘antifascist state’. However, the demise of this state did not mean that it was now their turn to be ‘the defeated’. For the discursive figures, popular not only on the left, of victors and vanquished, of those who win and those who are defeated, had already been replaced by a different pair of perpetrator and victim.

It is within this historical movement that the concept of failure makes its appearance. Just as the figure of the victim has pushed aside that of the defeated, so the psychological discourse of failure coincides with the disappearance of the political term defeat. There is good cause to suggest that the question of failure is always bound up within the de-politicising strategy of neoliberalism. By means of a whole new technique of subjectivation, neoliberalism disappears both society and its struggles. At the same time, however, the neoliberal dispositif opens up its own peculiar perspective on history, which shall be sublated in the moment of its fall. Because for those who suffer it, defeat is inflicted from the outside, and by a superior opponent. Those who want to learn from defeat, learn that next time they should deploy better tactics, more thorough analysis and, most of all, a larger mass.

Failure, on the other hand, goes deeper. It is – ideologically ignoring all external conditions – always a failure of ourselves. What we learn from it is the following: why even under different (even under optimal) conditions, the same politics would not have achieved the desired success. Or, in materialist terms: how a different politics could have been snatched from the same pitiful circumstances.

Translated by Tadzio Mueller & Ben Trott

Bini Adamczak is an unstable alliance of every-day reproduction modes, unwanted heritages and quarrelsome spectres, such as deconstructivist feminisms and the orthodox critique of value. She’s a performer, visual artist and independent author of borderlining texts and books on such subjects as communism for children and yesterday’s tomorrow.

Anna Dost is a lawyer. In her leisure time, she deals with (left) histories of the Soviet Union and other East European Countries, focusing on anti-semitism and Stalinist phenomena as well as gender issues and feminism.

Tadzio Mueller and Ben Trott are editors of Turbulence.

This is a translated and edited version of the article ‘Willkommen im Club der linken Versager: Zur Geschichte des realexistierenden Scheiterns’ in arranca! Issue 40, Summer 2009. An edited German version, corresponding to the article published here can be found here.

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