Rural-Urban in Socialism (General Observations 1.1)

The political failures of the Soviet Union, combined with decades of deindustrialization in the West, have inspired large swaths of left writing to argue that socialist or communist utopia can only take place in small settlements. From green anarchists such as Murray Bookchin, through less inspired primitivist, anti-civilizationists or (Maoist-turned-liberal) green propositions to contemporary radical thought such as that of the Comité Invisible, many have been the propositions advancing (or at least implying) that village-like structures offer a less hierarchical and more integrative social and political life than cities, as well as better ecological and economical sustainability and other conditions for real world socialism. For some, these conditions include a promise of autarchy as well as of patterns of peer pressure immediate enough, and a political homogeneity concerning population and territory pure enough to make police and surveillance institutions dispensable. Some of these propositions draw from a simple reformist or “drop out” ethos seeking pockets of rural utopia within a capitalism identified with the urban. Many others, however, arise as a response to the profound transformations of the socio-economic forms and functions of cities and industry and a corresponding separation of the village-city and urban-rural divides. In order to delineate what will serve as the basis for further engagements with spectral commonism within the GhstRmnEmpire, a short note on the histories of these transformations of form and functions is necessary.

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels developed their thought with British industrial cities of the 19thcentury in mind. A basic tenant of the dialectical materialism this thought would come to advance was that cities were the prime place of The Revolution because it was only around its factories that the necessary population mass could be achieved that would turn a quantity (the working class viewed as a high number of people) into a quality (a self-conscious revolutionary agent). The notion of The City advanced was that of a space with a critical population density, a density created through industrial institutions both attracting and concentrating people from different strands of life in one place and transforming them into ‘workers’ by subjecting them to shared experiences of industrial labor, capitalist exploitation, dereliction and dehumanization. The urban space was seen as an overcrowded and heavy industrial space with machines and disciplinary lifestyles, while the rural space was perceived as a dispersed and natural space whose marker was the virtual absence of heavy industry as well as the survival a certain spontaneity and directness of life and labor. While an urban industrial worker was reduced to partial tasks as standardized as his work days and may never see the end result of his work, the peasant was still seen as integrated into a holistic labor process and a rhythm of life dictated more by the seasons, weather and traditions rather than the clock.

This reading of the city as a spatial catalyzer transforming a mass of people into a united political movement led many to assume that the communist revolution would break out in Britain or Germany, with their highly industrialized economies, societies and dense urbanism, rather than Russia and most of the other countries that actually did become (self-defined) socialist republics throughout the 20thcentury. This historical reality of socialism did cause a lot of headache to revolutionary thinkers and activists alike. It did not, however, lead to the refining of the conceptual relevance of the urban/rural divide in Marxist and other left thought. The Industrial Worker continued to occupy pride of place within a socialist-communist revolutionary imaginary infused with notions of machine-modernity and progress that continued to be perceived as both inherently urban and, more importantly, industrial.

It was within this logic that the revolutionary realities of the rural came to be condensed into the material form of the tractor, viz. connected to an industrialization of rural labor, of machine-modernity making workers out of peasants. In some ways, this extension of the revolutionary imaginary through the extension of the industrial form admitted that the locus of socialist and communist utopias are indeed social relations, and that place and space should be understood as important, but secondary functions. Yet, in spite of all this, The City continued to impose itself as the archetype of the revolutionary catalyzer. The march of history was towards communism, and it had to pass through a socialism defined as a more humane version of modernity, which, in turn, was defined through an industrial progress which continued to be seen as urban. Though the Revolution initiated a new epoch, none of the countries that had seen it claimed to already be communist. A march had to be engaged, a long and difficult forward movement of a mass towards a defined goal, a form of progress whose nature was closer to labor and building something for the next world, than to the presentist, easy and indefinite pleasure stroll of the this-worldly modern-individualist (bourgeois) flaneur. It was a movement along a well-defined historical and dialectical materialist map of certitudes, not a perambulation looking for surprises and coincidences. A map of controlled social relations, planned economies, centralized settlement design and other things that continued to give to the communist utopia the form of The City with its highly differentialized social-economy and machine-facilitated forms of life. No number of tractors could entirely free the rural from its connotations of nature and its laws resisting human interference in spite of all efforts (e.g. ultimately, no green house would effectively subject the cycle of the seasons). The rural and the urban, then, were not only actual and partly conflictual places of the formation of a revolutionary class, but, as such, they occupied an important place within the revolutionary imaginary that could be modified but remained largely resistant to the facts of historical reality. As in earlier socio-political visions, the communist imaginary wove divisions of workers and peasants together with those of controlled and modern culture on the one side, and wild nature and savages on the other. While the post-Haussmann city could be designed to promote certain politics and social forms, the rural continued to be a “white” space of counter-revolution and dark arts.

Then came the Chinese revolution and the development of Maoism. Again, peasants were the prime agents of revolution where socialist thought still identified the industrial worker as the historical agent of communism. But Mao did not mobilize tractors to diffract the imagery of his thought. Instead, he modified basic tenets of historical materialism, promoting the role of spontaneity for the development of socialism against the–increasingly frail–dominance of ideas of historical determinism acting through an industrial-urban environment. This was both rooted in earlier notions of spontaneity (Rosa Luxembourg’s mass strike, syndicalism, etc.) and, more ambiguously, in a critique of Leninist ideas of the avant-garde of the party in leading the working class on their path to communism. Decrying this leadership model as elitist and an entryway for political manipulation, Mao again and again activated spontaneist dynamics within socialist China, handily initiating periods such as that of the Cultural Revolution to both weaken the Chinese Communist Party and consolidating his own highly personalized leadership position.

In the GhstRmnEmpire of the West, the large-scale reception of Maoism coincided with the onset of deindustrialization and a transformation of middle-class culture and became central for a new understanding of both these tendencies and their rewriting of the relation between rural and urban, village and city, and increasingly important hybrid forms such as suburbs an deindustrialize ghost towns. On the one hand, the notion of the industrial worker referred more and more to a class both receding and increasingly identified with the political right rather than left. On the other hand, middle class culture sought different forms of authority and eschatology: less obeying, waiting and working towards a dream deferred and more immediate satisfaction, hedonism, presentism. More and more authors that self-identified as left were less and less willing to concede historical agency to others: not to State Institutions, nor to the still heavily romanticized figure of the worker. In this context, Maoism, its focus on the peasant as agent and the so called Third World as place (viz. the countries belonging neither to the Western nor the Soviet bloc) and its emphasis on the role of spontaneity and situationality for socialism rather than determinism and positionality fell on very fertile ground. Especially because it also offered a convincing answer to another conundrum of leftist thought. (To be continued in Phantom Propositions: Sites of Passage)

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