A new Prometheus need not take the form of the ‘Modern Prince’, the party, if the latter is regarded as a commanding height and centre supervenient on any other council, association or organisational form. Collective control must involve the control and ‘recall’, to use that important slogan of delegation in communes and soviets, of its inevitable instances of centralisation. But whether the horizon be one of radical reform or revolution, a systemic challenge cannot but take on, rather than blithely ignore, the risks of Prometheanism, outside of any forgetful apologia for state power or survivalist, primitivist mirage (Toscano 2011).
So says Alberto Toscano in a paper The prejudice against prometheus. We all know the legend of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to men enabling the opening of progress, the driving force of civilisation, there is no need to repeat it again. In Toscano’s essay he surveys the political scene in 2011- the year of the high point of the UKs student mobilisations, the year of riot- and finds that on the left and on the right everyone was decrying Prometheus. On both sides of the political divide everyone threw their hands up in despair at the thought of taking drastic action and mounting a campaign oriented to the ‘control of collective destiny’. On the right he finds calls for reform that do nothing but nourish the repressive function of the state. In the UK this has been borne out. The state has indeed become more repressive under the guise of welfare reform measures that have actively impoverished unemployed, zero-hour and part time workers, forcing them into a state of dependency on food banks, into homelessness, and sinking the mental health of the working class into abjection. On the left, he diagnoses ‘melancholy or illusion’.
I share his belief that the left itself is suffering from melancholy, although I use the less psychoanalytic term “depression”. For Toscano the melancholy is directly related to loss and to mourning: the loss of the revolutionary project and the mourning for a time when communist ends were imaginable, even possible. The illusion is even simpler than this: it is the illusion that powerlessness can triumph over the powerful, the illusion that organisation is irrelevant. Toscano decries this as the counter-revolutionary impulse that believes any attempt to design a better society is doomed to fail and fall into totalitarianism. The history of the left is one drenched in blood and disaster, it is become irredeemable, beyond salvage, a mausoleum best left sealed in the past with the past silently inside it.
Already in 2011 this was familiar ground. Toscano is writing after Zizek’s In defence of lost causes wherein the Slovenian agitator wrote against the ‘liberal blackmail’ (2009, 41) that the politics of emancipation were always the politics of terror and tyranny. Zizek has long rallied against the liberal identification of fascism and actually existing Communism as two sides of the same totalitarian phenomena. In IDLC Zizek is keen to point out that this is simply not the case: German fascism succeeded in carrying out what it promised, whereas Communism was a grotesque failure. The reasons are manifold: Stalinism was supposed to uphold an Enlightenment vision of truth and responsibility in which men could be held accountable for their crimes, Nazism on the other hand smuggled into its project only the sheen of Enlightenment, justifying the mass murder of the Jews by the fact of their biology. Communism had defectors and dissidents who saw that Stalinism was a betrayal of communist principles, whereas there could be no such disagreement with Hitler; as Führer Hitler was the Reich. There are also the points that Nazism was a response to communism as a threat and as a model, adopting its forms just as the communists were usually among the first the Nazis brutalised.