A Message From the Emperor

Make strong old dreams lest this our world lose heart.

Ezra Pound, A lume spento (1908).

The Emperor, so a parable runs, has sent a message to you, the humble subject, the insignificant shadow cowering in the remotest distance before the imperial sun; the Emperor from his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He has commanded the messenger to kneel down by the bed, and has whispered the message to him; so much store did he lay on it that he ordered the messenger to whisper it back into his ear again. Then by a nod of the head he has confirmed that it is right. Yes, before the assembled spectators of his death – all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and on the spacious and loftily mounting open staircases stand in a ring the great princes of the Empire – before all these he has delivered his message. The messenger immediately sets out on his journey; a powerful, an indefatigable man; now pushing with his right arm, now with his left, he cleaves a way for himself through the throng; if he encounters resistance he points to his breast, where the symbol of the sun glitters; the way is made easier for him than it would be for any other man. But the multitudes are so vast; their numbers have no end. If he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly, and soon doubtless you would hear the welcome hammering of his fist on your door. But instead how vainly does he wear out his strength; still he is only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; he must next fight his way down the stair; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; the courts would still have to be crossed; and after the courts the second outer palace; and once more the stairs and courts; and once more another palace; and so on for thousands of years; and if at last he should burst through the outermost gate – but never, never can that happen – the imperial capital would lie before him, the centre of the world, crammed to bursting with its own sediment. Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.

Franz Kafka, ‘An Imperial Message’ (1919).

1883: Marx dies, Kafka is born. A metaphor that describes, explains, hints at, in its own way comprehends, indirectly expresses the following fact: it is only with the weapon of political irony that these days one can combat the tragic seriousness of history. The messenger, with his message, has not left the imperial palace; he has set off, but is still entangled in the long sequence of rooms, in the arrangement of successive courtyards, in the infinite outer houses, the inner staircases and then the other palaces, crowded with things, events, masses, institutions, guards, crowds and brawls. An impenetrable tangle. A space-time in continuous flux and change. It is this we call, this that is, modern capitalism.

The messenger has not escaped the palace, but, as he passes by, has created a disturbance within. Parts of the message have, in the meantime, been received, inspiring fear in the princes and hope in the people. It is already something, an occurrence that’s far from insignificant. All this demonstrates that the messenger had to leave, that his message was necessary. He has not completed the mission. And yet the fact that he attempted it has provoked an awareness of how things really stand: one that will be passed down to those who follow. This event is irreversible: you might argue that it was mistaken, you might forget it ever happened, but neither attitude can be sustained for long. The message was not delivered, nonetheless the message was not lost. This is what we are here to say. And were that the only thing left for us to do, it would be enough simply to know, and make known, that we have lived well.

The first letter of John the Evangelist: he whom we heard, he whom we beheld, he whom we contemplated and whom our hands touched, here, we declare unto you. And these things speak we unto you, that our joy may be complete. The start of the first century and the start of the twentieth to some extent resemble one another. The fulgurant beginning, the messianic message, the eschatological perspective that ‘shows unto you that eternal life’; against which a hard, tragic reaction – war, crisis, slaughter – returns us to the hundred-year peace: an operation of restorative innovation (a new name for the conservative revolution).

What is the workers’ movement missing? There were Desert Fathers. They were not listened to. But this is not their task, to be listened to in their own time. No, it is rather the seed cast into the field of the future. But in order that the plant comes forth, grows, bears fruit, and that the fruit not be lost, something else is needed. What is the message missing? I know it’s scandalous to even think it: what is missing is the Church form. That, it must be said, was attempted but did not succeed. The Revolution requires the Institution: to last not decades but centuries. This is the Church. To be conserved in time, for those to come, the liberatory event, always a momentary act – the taking of the Winter Palace – must be given a form. The transmutation of force into form is politics that persists, and then – only then – does it become history, comprehensive, complete and undiminished. And it is necessary to know, woe betide those who do not know it, that history, before the institution that contains it, is a permixta of good and bad.

It was Agamben who thought to go back to the young Ratzinger, reader of the Liber regularum, a work of the fourth-century Donatist heretic Ticonius. Ratzinger lingers on the Liber’s second rule, De Domini corpore bipartitio, ‘on the twofold body of the Lord’. I find this doctrine of the corpus bipartitum interesting for thinking the political. The body of the Church, insofar as it is the body of the Lord, has two sides, a ‘left’ and a ‘right’, guilty and blessed. Its two faces are found in the Scriptures: fusca sum et decora, says the bride of the Song of Songs, ‘I am black and comely’. The bride of Christ, the Church, has within itself as much sin as grace. Agamben writes:

Ratzinger emphasies the difference between this thesis and Augustine’s, who nonetheless has clearly drawn inspiration from it for his idea of a Church permixta of good and evil. ‘[In Ticonius] there is not that clear antithesis of Jerusalem and Babylon, which is so characteristic of Augustine. Jerusalem is at the same time Babylon, it includes it in itself. Both constitute one sole city, which has a “right” and a “left” side. Tyconius did not develop, like Augustine, a doctrine of the two cities, but that of one city with two sides’.

No one should think of relating these two sides to the left and the right that we nowadays discuss in the bar or between which we decide at the ballot box. This is a very serious matter. If even unto the Last Judgement there is a Church of Christ and a Church of the Antichrist, let alone in history a State of the righteous and a State of the wicked, then the good and the bad must exist not just in the same body politic, but in the very body of the Political. As Hegel said before Marx, whosoever wants die Weltändern, to transform life, must first of all come to terms with that ineliminable and irresolvable mysterium iniquitatis of the human condition and, with peace in their heart, struggle without hope of a definitive revelatio at the end of days. Kafka:

Great, tall commander-in-chief, leader of multitudes, lead the despairing through the mountain passes no one else can find beneath the snow. And who is it that gives you your strength? He who gives you your clear vision.

March–April 1917: as Kafka sent the message, Lenin wrote the April Theses. February had brought the bourgeois democratic revolution. ‘Dual power’ was in effect: the Provisional Government, which had overthrown the Romanov dynasty, coexisted with the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, which harked back to the Petrograd Soviet of the 1905 revolution. Lenin had just completed and despatched from Dadaist Zurich his Letters from Afar. To Stockholm, then through Finland, in a sealed railway carriage, with the agreement of the German authorities – an ingenious tactical use of the enemy – he had arrived in Russia. At the Tauride Palace, where the Petrograd Soviet held their meetings, he speaks to a meeting of Social Democrats, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Independents. He reads them the April Theses:

The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution – which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie – to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants. […]

The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses. […]

Not a parliamentary republic – to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies would be a retrograde step – but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom.

Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy [for publication in Pravda Lenin notes ‘i.e., the standing army to be replaced by the arming of the whole people’].

The salaries of all officials, all of whom are elective and displaceable at any time, not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker. […]

Confiscation of all landed estates.

Nationalisation of all lands in the country, the land to be disposed of by the local Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. The organisation of separate Soviets of Deputies of Poor Peasants. The setting up of a model farm on each of the large estates (ranging in size from 100 to 300 dessiatines, according to local and other conditions, and to the decisions of the local bodies) under the control of the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ Deputies and for the public account.

The immediate union of all banks in the country into a single national bank, and the institution of control over it by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

It is not our immediate task to ‘introduce’ socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies. […]

Our demand for a ‘commune state’ [note by Lenin: ‘i.e., a state of which the Paris Commune was the prototype’]. […]

Change of the Party’s name [note by Lenin: ‘Instead of “Social-Democracy”, whose official leaders throughout the world have betrayed socialism and deserted to the bourgeoisie (the “defencists” and the vacillating “Kautskyites”), we must call ourselves the Communist Party].

Here is the message: ‘The tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution’. And here is the messenger, who departs on his mission, with Marx’s whisper in his ears, repeated with exactitude. Carr retells the story of that meeting in which Lenin read the April Theses for the first time:

Bogdanov interrupted with cries of ‘Delirium, the delirium of a madman’; Goldenberg, another former Bolshevik, declared that ‘Lenin had proposed himself as candidate for a European throne vacant for 30 years, the throne of Bakunin’; and Steklov, the editor of Izvestiya and soon to join the Bolsheviks, added that Lenin’s speech consisted of ‘abstract constructions’ […]

Lenin’s speech was attacked from all sides, only Kollontai speaking in support of it; and he left the hall without exercising his right of reply. On the same evening he re-read the theses to a gathering of Bolshevik leaders, and once more found himself completely isolated.

Pravda published the theses on 7 April 1917, but the following day a statement by the leadership signed by Kamenev stressed that the theses constituted only ‘the personal opinion of Lenin’, and the same day the Petrograd party committee rejected them with 13 votes opposed, two in favour and one abstention.

These are the first signs of the difficulties that the political message will encounter in navigating the palaces of history. But this time – ‘November sixth is early, November eighth is too late’ – the message ultimately arrived at its destination. Miracles also exist in politics. And fortunately myth continues to transmit them. From that day, future humanity will conserve it in their memory. Therefore it’s possible! It is possible to reverse power, between the low and the high: those who are above, below; those who are below, above. Certainly, the messenger is ‘a vigorous, indefatigable man’, as Giulio Schiavoni puts it in his translation, ‘a robust, tireless man’ according to Rodolfo Paoli. ‘If he meets with resistance, he points to the symbol of the sun imprinted on his chest. He proceeds more quickly than anyone else’, we read in one version. And ‘if he is obstructed, he points to his chest on which is a symbol of the sun, and proceeds more easily than anyone else’, we read in the other.

Is that all? No, not for this alone was it a victory. For the bourgeoisie the revolution led to wars, those of Napoleon. For the proletariat war led to the revolution, that of Lenin. The dialectic of revolution and restoration functioned differently in the histories of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In the first, restoration came quickly, but the revolution won in the long run. The opposite occurred in the second: the revolution lasted, even if not sufficiently for its needs, but restoration was the definitive result; perhaps it could never have happened otherwise. So it was written.

‘The tasks of the proletariat in the present revolution’ was an eschatological message. It fits into the eternal history of salvation, sacred and not secular. It is the oppressed who rise up. Not homme, but humanité in revolt. With this message, and this messenger, it was translated into political action. For the first time. This is why its victory was irresistible.

If the message whispered in the ear does not find the messenger to bear it with power, making his way by force through the crowd, then it doesn’t arrive, doesn’t escape the tangle of palaces. The great, and for this reason tragic, event of the twentieth century, has taught us this. Instead, it is only the messenger who bears no message that arrives, because he is let through. We are being taught this lesson by the minor, comic event labelled the twenty-first century. Here, the prophecy has been fulfilled: the medium is the message. The messenger is the proclamation. Only nothing is allowed to come and go, democratically; never something. The catastrophe is that everything remains as it is. Nihilism amounts to everything being accepted as it is. Perhaps Russia was the only soil capable of welcoming that seed, the only space-time where the idea could have become history. Russian spirituality is what explains, deep down, that divine madness that was the proletarian October.

De Tocqueville caught some slight glimpse of the future. Communism in Russia and democracy in America are the two vast islands upon which the Modern, on its long journey, washed up. Provisionally, because other islands on other continents are still emerging. And today, one of these two great ships has arrived in port, while the other has foundered. Democracy has been realised and made a world of itself. Communism has been frustrated and turned itself into a dream. But the Russian revolutionary impetus and the practical American spirit remain two opposed choices in life, two alternative forms of existence. And I feel like saying something that is today scandalous: that freedom lies in the former, not the latter. I will add, repeating myself, a contentious assertion: naturally one can become free passing through many routes, but in the twentieth century I consider having been a communist the royal road. Speaking for myself, I know that I would never have the freedom that I feel, inside myself, without having passed through, in my thought and my life, the historic experience of communism.

Translated by Rees Nicolas.

This text originally appeared as ‘Un messaggio dell’imperatore’, in Dello Spirito Libero: Frammenti di vita e pensiero, Rome 2015.

Read on: Mario Tronti, ‘Our Operaismo’, NLR 73.