Some controversy has been brewing in Ottawa these past few weeks, over the building of a memorial monument to the “Victims of Communism”. What sort of controversy might possibly befall such an ill-conceived project, you ask? Government officials are primarily concerned with the proposed location of the memorial site. It seems that the land is considered prime real estate for another stuffy building to house government bureaucrats. Others are concerned that the proposed design of the monument is bleak, stark, unsightly, and depressing. Point taken – it’s mimetic, mirroring the profound despair of Communism! Good that we should regard it as somewhat unsightly. This emboldens our Western neo-liberal convictions and democratic self-assurances.
Althusser could not have conceived of a more literal interpretation of On Ideology (1971). In a Marxist vein, Althusser extends his materialist dialectics directly to the oppressive ideological arm of the state: “Thesis II: Ideology has a material existence.” Typically, ideology operates in a more covert manner. To say that it has a material existence is to pay our post-Hegelian dues, speaking of ‘matter’ in many senses. Ideology subsists on educational systems, on political dialogues and scientific narratives of meaning; chiefly, it subsists or supervenes on artifactuality – Derrida’s word for the totalizing mediation that presents us only with a particular conception of reality (that is, the real projection of the master) projected onto the whole. The artefact is something created in nature, placed in, on, or over the natural world; as early as Aristotle, that is to say that it has a material existence. And it is supposed to have many parts, each one relating to the other as part of an intricate machine. Althusser calls this subtle social machine the ideological state apparatus.
Yet here is just such an artefact proposing to be plopped, plain as day, right outside of the Canadian Supreme Court building. All semblance of covertness in the operation of the apparatus has been lost. With the opacity of its metaphor, the state offends us with the transparency of its intent. The monument does not only commemorate the deaths of those many millions who lost their lives under totalitarian regimes (whose lives we do well to remember, to learn lessons for the future) – it commemorates the death of an idea, of a spectacle of opposition, namely of Communism itself. ‘Communism kills’ is the message (keep your children away!) – however, here we are blessedly safe from tyranny, where we are free to memorialize these deaths without fear of the violent reaction of an oppressive government. We are safe precisely because Communism is dead. Never mind whether it died all at once with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or slowly on the rack, after a thousand cuts from Francis Fukuyama and the rest of the Club Western capitalo-parliamentarian.
Yet if Communism is dead and gone, then why do we continue to hear ever more novel iterations of its epitaph? The Memorial to the Victims Of Communism is just the latest of gravestones, set down wherever it is one supposes ‘Communism’ to be buried. Surely if it was dead, we would not have to be reminded by the State of its passing with such dutiful consistency? The proposed monument is not as much a memorial as it is another killing blow, proclaiming itself final. It is a voodoo doll set up as a public spectacle, and every one complicit or nonchalant to behold it places another cut to injure the idea.
But ideas do not die. We see this with the immortality of men and women who become ideas, even if the bourgeois mythology sometimes functions to distort the verisimilitude between the person and the idea. Only last week, Boris Nemtsov made this transcendence to ideal existence. After his assassination, thousands marched on in his name, rallying against Putin’s corrupt regime. The ideal of an emancipatory politics – namely, of ‘Communism’ – will carry on eternal in the masses subjected to the existence of the material reality of class struggle. Over the past two decades, ‘Communism’, or the historical antecedents to what Alain Badiou newly calls The Communist Hypothesis (2010) has been sullied unceasingly by the dominant state ideology. We must steal the ideal back from the rack. By refining, and persisting in its use, the ideological exertion of the state will wither away. “[I]f all are together, then all are communists! And if all are communists, then all are philosophers!” (Badiou, Philosophy For Militants).
We demand equal rights to establishing gravesites for ideas. The “Victims Of Communism” memorial is covered with over a hundred million memory squares, meant to represent individual victims. How many more millions of squares would decorate a memorial to the Victims Of Capitalism? But, they will never allow us to build such an offensive apparatus. We do better to find an existing memorial, to proclaim that, Here! Here lies the body of the idea, called Capitalism! Where might we locate this site?
You know that in Paris, under the Arc de Triomphe, there is a perpetual flame, which celebrates the Unknown Soldier. Indeed, it belongs to the very essence of the symbolic figure of the soldier to be unknown. The fundamental dimension of the soldier is precisely the dialectical unity between courageous death and immortality, without the slightest reference either to a personal soul or to a God.
Alain Badiou, Philosophy For Militants (2012)
The paradigm of heroism, in modern war, and in the modern world system, is the soldier. The creative value of this figurative representation is illustrated, as Badiou thinks, in romantic and post-romantic lyric poetry. The soldier is not an individual. The soldier is a representation, an affect or simulacrum of a historicist dialectic. The soldier embodies the formal reality of the ascendant ideology of the state – it goes beyond Aristotelian hylomorphism, fully transcending the individuality of the particular soldier qua perfect symbolic representation of a Platonic form of the ideal, as a mathematical symbol represents a number. The romantic lyrical theme is predominantly characterized by a return to Christian pacifism, and passive sacrifice. Surely modern war is anything but pacifistic; rather, it is the submission of the nameless to his own subjection by the formal reality of the ideal that embodies this passivity, just as Christ submits himself to the formal reality of His Holy Father as the sacrificial part. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is just as such a memorial to sacrifice, to the victims of Capitalism. Its victims count so many that we have given up even the semblance of an effort to quantify them, resorting to synecdoche.
The Tories are rushing the “Victims Of Communism” memorial project through, apparently in a bid to garner votes for the upcoming election. Controversy and opposition to the monument has hitherto been utterly vacuous. Poor Althusser is rolling over in his grave for this lack of subtlety. Real politics is possible only on the condition of the emancipation of the oppressed masses. This monument only serves to perpetuate the self-serving faux-politik of bourgeois democracy. We do not need a memorial to remember ideological oppression. Ideological oppression has never left. It is a precondition of the continued existence of the Capitalist state. And it has never been so unsightly.