the holy fools

From Stalin to Pol Pot

Techno-nomad TJs are attracted by the uncompromising theoretical radicalism expressed by Deleuze and Guattari. However, far from succumbing to an outside conspiracy, Fréquence Libre imploded because of the particular New Left politics which inspired A Thousand Plateaus and the other sacred texts. Unwilling to connect abstract theory with its practical application, the techno-nomads cannot see how Deleuze and Guattari’s celebration of direct democracy was simultaneously a justification for intellectual elitism. This elitism was no accident. Because of their very different life experiences, many young people in the Sixties experienced a pronounced ‘generation gap’ between themselves and their parents. Feeling so isolated, they believed that society could only be changed by a revolutionary vanguard composed of themselves and their comrades. This is why many young radicals simultaneously believed in two contradictory concepts. First, the revolution would create mass participation in running society. Second, the revolution could only be organised by a committed minority. [14]

The New Left militants were reliving an old problem in a new form. Back in the 1790s, Robespierre had argued that the democratic republic could only be created by a revolutionary dictatorship. During the 1917 Russian revolution, Lenin had advocated direct democracy while simultaneously instituting the totalitarian rule of the Bolsheviks. As their ‘free radio’ experience showed, Deleuze and Guattari never escaped from this fundamental contradiction of revolutionary politics. The absence of the Leninist party did not prevent the continuation of vanguard politics. As in other social movements, Fréquence Libre was dominated by a few charismatic individuals: the holy prophets of the anarcho-communist revolution. [15]

In Deleuze and Guattari’s writings, this deep authoritarianism found its theoretical expression in their methodology: semiotic structuralism. Despite rejecting its ‘wooden language’, the two philosophers never really abandoned Stalinism in theory. Above all, they retained its most fundamental premise: the minds of the majority of the population were controlled by bourgeois ideologies. [16] During the Sixties, this elitist theory was updated through the addition of Lacanian structuralism by Louis Althusser, the chief philosopher of the French Communist party. [17] For Deleuze and Guattari, Althusser had explained why only a revolutionary minority supported the New Left. Brainwashed by the semiotic ‘machinic assemblages’ of the family, media, language and psychoanalysis, most people supposedly desired fascism rather than anarcho-communism. This authoritarian methodology clearly contradicted the libertarian rhetoric within Deleuze and Guattari’s writings. Yet, as the rappers who wanted to make a show for Fréquence Libre discovered, Deleuzoguattarian anarcho-communism even included the censorship of music. By adopting an Althusserian analysis, Deleuze and Guattari were tacitly privileging their own role as intellectuals: the producers of semiotic systems. Just like their Stalinist elders, the two philosophers believed that only the vanguard of intellectuals had the right to lead the masses - without any formal consent from them - in the fight against capitalism.

For young militants, the problem was how this committed minority could make a revolution without ending up with totalitarianism. Some of the New Left thought that anarcho-communism expressed their desire to overthrow both political and economic oppression. [18] However, even this revolutionary form of politics still appeared to many as tainted by the bloody failure of the Russian revolution. Had not the experience of Stalinism proved that any compromise with the process of modernity would inevitably lead to the reimposition of tyranny? Consequently, anarcho-communist thinkers increasingly decided that just opposing the oppressive features of economic development was not radical enough. Desiring a complete transformation of society, they rejected the transcendent ‘grand narrative’ of modernity altogether, especially those left-wing versions inspired by Hegel and Marx. According to these ultra-leftists, the whole concept of progress was a fraud designed to win acquiescence for the intensification of capitalist domination. While the mainstream Left still wanted to complete the process of modernisation, the New Left should instead be leading a revolution against modernity. [19]

Once anarcho-communism was transformed into an ahistorical ideology, the New Left’s opposition to economic development soon developed into a desire to abandon modernity altogether. Following the May ‘68 revolution, support for rural guerrillas resisting American imperialism soon became mixed up with hippie tribalism, concerns about environmental degradation and nostalgia for a lost peasant past. Disillusioned with the economic progress championed by the parliamentary Left, many on the New Left synthesised these different ideas into hatred of the mass urban society created by modernity. For them, a truly libertarian revolution could only have one goal: the destruction of the city. [20]

Deleuze and Guattari enthusiastically joined this attack against the concept of historical progress. For them, the ‘deterritorialisation’ of urban society was the solution to the contradiction between participatory democracy and revolutionary elitism haunting the New Left. If the centralised city could be broken down into ‘molecular rhizomes’, direct democracy and the gift economy would reappear as people formed themselves into small nomadic bands. According to Deleuze and Guattari, anarcho-communism was not the ‘end of history’: the material result of a long epoch of social development. On the contrary, the liberation of desire from semiotic oppression was a perpetual promise: an ethical stance which could be equally lived by nomads in ancient times or social movements in the present. With enough intensity of effort, anyone could overcome their hierarchical brainwashing to become a fully-liberated individual: the holy fool. [21]

Yet, as the experience of Fréquence Libre proved, this rhetoric of unlimited freedom contained a deep desire for ideological control by the New Left vanguard. While the nomadic fantasies of A Thousand Plateaus were being composed, one revolutionary movement actually did carry out Deleuze and Guattari’s dream of destroying the city. Led by a vanguard of Paris-educated intellectuals, the Khmer Rouge overthrew an oppressive regime installed by the Americans. Rejecting the ‘grand narrative’ of economic progress, Pol Pot and his organisation instead tried to construct a rural utopia. However, when the economy subsequently imploded, the regime embarked on ever more ferocious purges until the country was rescued by an invasion by neighbouring Vietnam. Deleuze and Guattari had claimed that the destruction of the city would create direct democracy and libidinal ecstasy. Instead, the application of such anti-modernism in practice resulted in tyranny and genocide. The ‘line of flight’ from Stalin had led to Pol Pot. [22]

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