PRINT October 2017


THE REVOLUTION IS STILL WITH US: A century ago, the Russian uprising of October 1917 defined the world order we know now, in which the struggle between individual and collective, capital and welfare, identity and authority continues to rage in new and unexpected ways. And though the Soviet state ultimately failed, it nevertheless left smoldering the embers of unrealized utopias and potentialities—visions of life and experience that challenged Western realities of oligarchy, democracy, colonialism, and war.
Art was at the center of these transformations. More so than Thermidor or Tahrir Square, the October Revolution posed the perceptual as political. Changing the way we see and sense could change the way we acted and thought. Forms, materials, making, organizing—these were, and could still be, the elements of a new society. In the essay that follows, scholar Devin Fore unearths radical models of Soviet social organization.

Chronocard from the 1968 edition of Platon Kerzhentsev’s Printsipy organizatsii (Principles of Organization) (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1924).

WITHIN THE CULTURAL HISTORY of selfhood, the Soviet “chronocard” constitutes a very curious artifact. Distributed to the thousands of members of the League of Time, a division within the legendary movement for the Scientific Organization of Labor (not), this tool for autosurveillance enjoined its user to register in its columns such everyday activities as sleeping, working, eating, commuting, attending lectures, relaxing, hygiene, and reading. (The chart also featured a write-in category at the bottom.) Part of a pervasive mania for efficiency and social management in the early Soviet period, the chronocard arrayed the biorhythms of the individual like the timetable of a train. However, unlike practices such as the confessional, diary writing, and other reflexive techniques of the self that were dominant in the West, the end product of the chronocard’s quantitative life-logging was never meant to be a stable subject. Indeed, one of the most striking features of the card’s method for self-auditing is the utter discontinuity of the events that it records. Once the prescribed block of sleep breaks off punctually at 8 am, life activities begin to flicker all over the chart. A montage of unconnected episodes and encounters, the chronocard presents a manifestly nonidentitarian portrait of the human psyche.

Before founding the League of Time in 1923, Platon Kerzhentsev began his political career working in the grassroots studios of the Proletkul’t, where he and colleagues like Stepan Krivtsov and Valerian Pletnev investigated the properties of different group configurations. For the Proletkul’tists researching in these social laboratories, collectivism was not an abstract ideal but a concrete science that had its own laws and analytic instruments. The group engineered communal studios for making graphic art, literature, and theater, and even assembled information collectives to form a kind of distributive organic computer based on a principle they called vzaimoinformatsiia (reciprocal information). One important discovery made during these experiments was that the products of collective labor qualitatively changed depending on the size of the ensemble. Based on this research, Kerzhentsev and his colleagues stipulated that for the purposes of, say, collective artistic creation, studios must consist of twenty to twenty-two people––no fewer, but also no more. Against an ascending current of Soviet gigantomania that equated bigger with better, Proletkul’t work demonstrated that a group that was too large was just as disadvantageous as one that was too small, and might even prove to be counterproductive.1

The Proletkul’t organizational scientists experimented not just with the size of these collectives, but also with different structural topologies. Kerzhentsev designed flexible organizational schemes for a variety of operations, including education, political deliberation, and, of course, production. To each of these tasks corresponded a distinct social morphology, and each of these configurations, in turn, placed different demands on the abilities and resources of its constituent members. A favorite topic in Kerzhentsev’s essays on organization was the principle of reorganization, which he illustrated with reference to Trotsky’s Red Army: Established during the Russian Civil War, this military body was at various times also deployed as a labor unit (both in factories and in the countryside) and as an educational institution (to combat rural illiteracy). For Kerzhentsev, each of these emergent properties––war machine, force of production, instrument of enlightenment––could be extracted from the same collective depending on that group’s configuration. Why demobilize the Red Army at the end of the civil war when instead it could be continuously reorganized?2

Interrogating the undifferentiated distinction between individual and collective, Proletkul’t research into the scale and topology of group design discovered an entire universe of mesoscalar social configurations between these two extremes. (At the present historical juncture, this is an especially urgent lesson for the Left in the United States, which now confronts the painful consequences of having focused for decades on the highest levels of government, while the Right has been strategically targeting school boards and state legislatures and mobilizing regional forces from megachurches to local talk radio.) Each particular assemblage is held together by different forces of affective adhesion, unleashing different emergent capabilities latent in the social group: The leaderless pack, for example, dispels the paranoid identifications of the crowd, but is itself prone to forms of physical contagion (Canetti and Deleuze); the heterosexual couple constitutes a metabolic combat vehicle whose internal hierarchy makes it superior in warfare to the homosexual group, which is fused by lateral bonds (Virilio); and the capitalist enterprise generates, in addition to its concrete material output of commodities, a surplus quantum of energy that can be discharged only in the international arena through imperialist violence (Luxemburg). Every social apparatus generates determinate effects and by-products that are by turns salutary and baleful.

The Proletkul’t experiments recognized, too, that the behavior of a collective regularly diverges from the explicit objectives of its members, even when these objectives are held in common by a group of like-minded individuals. So often it is organizational topology, rather than personal intention, that determines the success or failure of a given political impulse. The disjuncture between individual and collective behavior, which marks the disciplinary border between psychology and sociology, cuts both ways: Just as a progressive initiative will fizzle when introduced into a social framework that neutralizes it structurally, so, too, can a selfish motive generate altruistic behavior if put in the right context. The Futurist Viktor Pertsov, who began his career as a secretary in Kerzhentsev’s organization, observes in “Individual and Collective” that personal proclivities and tendencies will assume different articulations depending on the social system into which the individual is placed. Thus, Pertsov proposes, a person with a restless character has the potential to become either a vagrant or a traveling scholar, depending on his society.3 Given proper organization, the personal shortcomings of an individual, no matter how egoistic, can be transformed into collective accomplishment. This notion can be found already in Immanuel Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace” (1795), where the philosopher observes that “the problem of the constitution of a state, however hard it may sound, would be capable of solution even by a race of devils, if only they had understanding.”4

Photograph from Sergei Tret’iakov’s Vyzov: kolkhoznye ocherki (The Summons: Sketches from the Kolkhoz) (Moscow: Federatsiia, 1930).

Aleksandr Rodchenko once noted that a host of divergent capacities are always present in any given psyche. “A man is not just one sum total,” he wrote: “He is many, and sometimes they are quite opposed.” From this, Rodchenko famously concluded that it is impossible to provide a single, summary portrait of a person, either psychological or physiognomic.5 For him, the self is always a multitude, the individual dividual. The Proletkul’tists were similarly skeptical of the conceit of the internally “harmonious” (i.e., monotonous) self that had underwritten bourgeois ego psychology, and they campaigned instead for the individual to acquire a rich inventory of selves that were maximally discontinuous and conflicted. From the trade union, the guild (artel), and the seminar to the artistic circle (kruzhok), the workers’ club, and the amateur theater group, revolutionary society dramatically multiplied the opportunities for organizational interface, and while each of these systems interpellated an additional aspect of individual identity, there was no expectation that these diverse facets would ever achieve a grand characterological synthesis. To the contrary, for the psychoanalyst turned schizoanalyst Aron Zalkind, not’s ideal for the “psychology of the future human” was perforce radically discontinuous and dynamic, a self based not on “stagnation” but on “condensation.” Anything but harmonious, this subject was a “cold bomb” who, Zalkind explained, could be “either peaceful or explosive” depending on the social field in which she was situated.6 This highly reactive and fundamentally unstable human compound might be reading quietly one moment and agitating fervently the next. The ideal of discontinuous selfhood that is illustrated in the League of Time’s chronocard recalls Marx’s famous account of communism as a social organization in which it is possible “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner . . . without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”7 Each station of the day is a practice, not a personal identity.

In this way, the organizational scientists of Proletkul’t proposed a unique solution to political philosophy’s seemingly insoluble conflict between necessity and freedom, between social constraint and individual liberty. For them, revolutionary society was to be realized not by subordinating the individual to a monolithic collective, nor by espousing a version of radical autonomy that, to Marx at least, was tantamount to sociopathy (the pseudoliberty of “man as an isolated monad who is withdrawn into himself”8). Rather, they advocated multiplying and diversifying what Viktor Shklovsky later called “unfreedoms” (nesvobody). Forms of objective unfreedom are indispensable for creation, novelty, and personal development; the ossatures of human relationships and labor habits are the “gymnastic equipment” on which the self exercises, Shklovsky wrote in 1926.9 Increasing the number of unfreedoms thus further individuates the subject, transforming an anthropologically underdetermined being into a sheer singularity. While the individual withers under conditions of radical autonomy, she thrives through the intensification and continuous variation (i.e., reorganization) of the connections binding self to world. As Lenin observed in a philosophical fragment on dialectics, it is through a kind of robust and positive intersectionality, not through dedifferentiation and generality, that the individual is able to partake of the universal: “Every individual enters incompletely into the universal, etc., etc. Every individual is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of individuals (things, phenomena, processes), etc.”10 Here Lenin anticipates the process that Gilbert Simondon would later dub “transindividuation,” the mechanism whereby a singularity emerges through an encounter between forces exerted by both organic and inorganic beings within a given sociotechnical milieu. Each additional vector, or what Lenin calls a “transition,” diversifies the repertoire of entanglement in the world, further individuating and nuancing the subject in the process. “The more strings the marionettes are allowed to have, the more articulated they become,” writes Bruno Latour. And so “the question to be addressed is not whether we should be free or bound but whether we are well or poorly bound.”11 The revolution instructs that self-realization comes about not by freeing oneself from bonds, but by multiplying good bondage.

Devin Fore is a professor in the department of German at Princeton University.


1. On the structure of the Proletkul’t studios, see Stepan Krivtsov, “Kruzhkovaia rabota” (The Work of the Circle), Proletarskaia kul’tura (Proletarian Culture), no. 3 (August 1918): 21–25; Platon Kerzhentsev, “Metody raboty ‘Proletkul’ta’” (The Working Methods of ‘Proletkul’t’), Proletarskaia kul’tura (Proletarian Culture), no. 6 (February 1919): 18–22; as well as L. A. Pinegina, Sovetskii rabochii klass i khudozhestvennaia kul’tura, 1917–32 (The Soviet Working Class and Artistic Culture, 1917–32) (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Moskovskogo universiteta, 1984).

2. Platon Kerzhentsev, Printsipy organizatsii (Principles of Organization) (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1924).

3. Viktor Pertsov, “Lichnost’ i kollektiv” (Individual and Collective), in O chem i kak pisat’ rabochemu pisatliu (What and How to Write for the Worker-Writer) (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1931), 47–51.

4. Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay (1795), trans. Benjamin F. Trueblood (Washington, DC: American Peace Society, 1897).

5. Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Against the Synthetic Portrait, for the Snapshot” (1928), trans. John E. Bowlte, in Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913–1940, ed. Christopher Phillips (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989), 241.

6. Aron Zalkind, “Psikhlogiia cheloveka budushchego” (Psychology of the Future Human) in Zhizn’ i tekhnika budushchego (Life and Technology of the Future), ed. Ernest Kol’man (Moscow: Moskovskii rabochii, 1928), 432–503.

7. Karl Marx, The German Ideology (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 53.

8. Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” (1844), trans. Gregor Benton, in Karl Marx: Early Writings (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 229.

9. Viktor Shklovsky, Third Factory, ed. and trans. Richard Sheldon (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1977), 36.

10. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics,” in Collected Works, ed. Stewart Smith, trans. Clemence Dutt (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 38: 359.

11. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 216; and Latour, “Factures/Fractures: From the Concept of Network to the Concept of Attachment,” trans. Monique Girard Stark, Res, no. 36 (Autumn 1999): 22.