Outbreaks of political life
"What Is Politics?" p/d 3 of 5
When a regime’s automatic and autonomous practices are interrupted, perhaps by invasion or revolution, true politics may emerge in one of a number of forms, even if for just a while. Invading armies may lead to resistance, and revolutions may lead to citizen councils. In both cases, citizens are sucked into a political vacuum.
Armies and revolutionaries don’t plan or even expect outbreaks of true politics, Arendt says:
[An extensive number of local councils appeared] in every genuine revolution throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each time they appeared, they sprang up as the spontaneous organs of the people, not only outside of all revolutionary parties but entirely unexpected by them and their leaders.1
Marx encountered these councils in the form of communes during the 1871 Parisian Commune, and Lenin encountered the councils in the form of soviets during the 1919 Russian Revolution.2 Hungary’s Communist Party encountered the councils in may forms during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution:
. . . neighbourhood councils that emerged in all residential districts, so-called revolutionary councils that grew out of fighting together in the streets, councils of writers and artists, born in the coffee houses of Budapest, students’ and youths’ councils at the universities, workers’ councils in the factories, councils in the army, among the civil servants, and so on. The formation of a council in each of these disparate groups turned a more or less accidental proximity into a political institution.3
In all three of these revolutions, the councils began to coordinate with one another regionally and then nationally, approximating the revolutionary federal system that the colonial American councils of 150 years’ standing generated in the form of the Continental Congresses.
The revolutionaries and the communists crushed all three of these unpremeditated council systems. In Russia, of course, they forced the soviets to become Communist Party organs and—ironically—named their new country the Soviet Union, a name that Arendt calls a lie.4 The greater irony is that, in destroying the council systems, the revolutionaries acted like members of the party system that their revolution was formed to attack.5 These counter- depenedent revolutionaries ultimately couldn’t think outside the framework of party politics, which is another form of Barthes’s “discourse of repetition.”
Other forms of politics besides councils interrupt these “discourses of repetition” in settings outside of revolution or invasion. Passive resistance, mutual aid, hospitality to strangers, indigenous practices, community organization, anticipatory democracy, street liturgy, and even carnivals also threaten false political automatism. These forms of politics threaten oppressive systems with “the very dimension of the real.”
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Arendt, On Revolution, 241.
“The name ‘Soviet Union’ for post-revolutionary Russia has been a lie ever since, but this lie has also contained, ever since, the grudging admission of the overwhelming popularity, not of the Bolshevik party, but of the soviet system which the party reduced to impotence.” Arendt, 250.
“Put before the alternative of either adjusting their thoughts and deeds to the new and the unexpected or going to the extreme of tyranny and suppression, they hardly hesitated in their decision for the latter; with the exceptions of a few moments without consequence, their behaviour from beginning to end was dictated by considerations of party strife, which played no role in the councils but which indeed had been of paramount importance in the pre-revolutionary parliaments.” Arendt, 250.