Editors' Introduction

Volume 29  Issue 1  January 2017

At the time of the writing of this editors' introduction, a new president had been sworn in for the United States, an event that was followed the next day by a Women's March in Washington, D.C., to protest the administration’s policies. In the U.S., the present is beset with uncertainty and unease, and we have every indication the future will be similarly fractious and fraught with conflict.

Without a doubt, the rise of right-wing populisms across the globe has occurred in a context of recurring crises of capitalism, of the marginalization of peoples along class, gender, national, and ethnic lines, and of the weaknesses of the Left to come up with solid alternatives.

In these moments pulsating with change, as power relations are being reorganized, we also witness attempts to reorganize social space. One of the most telling and sharpest reminders of capital's insatiable hunger for land has been brought into sharp relief by protests organized by indigenous movements in North America, most recently at Standing Rock. The former presidential decision to stop the building of a pipeline has now been reversed by a new presidential executive order, giving the impression that the contestation of space may take sharp and pernicious forms in the near future.

At a time such as this one, the constant need to reflect on historical and present forms of organizing space, along with the intimate and complex connections of these forms with social transformation, becomes more acute.

The contents of the first issue of volume 29 of Rethinking Marxism are reflections on the relation between space and society. They all explore how the imaginations of particular historical eras take shape in space. In that spirit, we start the volume with a symposium, “Landscapes of Socialism: Romantic Alternatives to Soviet Enlightenment,” edited by Serguei A. Oushakine, on architecture, art, and landscape design in former socialist countries, and exploring the relation between these historical forms and transformations in society.

In “Sotzromantizm and Its Theaters of Life,” Serguei A. Oushakine contextualizes the contributions to the symposium. He starts his narrative with a reference to a visionary of Soviet architecture, to El Lissitzky's manifesto, wherein the leading constructivist set out the spatial imagination of suprematism, which would shape the new world of socialism. In this utterly radical imagining, the reshaping of the world would take place through the “rhythmic” dissection of space and time into meaningfully organized units, which would move together with the transformation of the tools of representation, resulting in what Lissitzky named a “new theater of life.” Oushakine argues that the utopian radicalism of the constructivists remained—despite the industrialization embarked on in 1928—with leading architects such as Moisei Ginzburg and Mikhail Barshch designing Moscow as a “green city” that would be transformed into a huge park; this would be realized in an economical way with a view to solving the problems of the big city, such as dense traffic.

The new imagination represented both a desire for a radical break with and erasure of the past and also a refusal to inherit. The contributions to the symposium, argues Oushakine, develop more critical and complex stories of this “historical nihilism” of Soviet modernity. Each points to how this original refusal to claim history gave way to historicizing and historicist perspectives. These disparate ways of alluding to the past are aggregated under the name of Sotzromantizm, in which the spatial vision of early Soviet modernity synthesized with influences of the past, a seminal reference being made by Anna Elistratova in 1957 when the author questioned Socialist realism, pointing at the romantic traditions as possible sources of inspiration. Sotzromantizm, argues Oushakine, flowed in the works of architects, artists, and writers in diverse forms, creating a new “politico-poetical theater of life” and along the way providing alternatives to the rationalism of Soviet Enlightenment.

The relation between the transformation of power relations and special organization as the arena in which power struggles are fought out is a theme brought to life in the first essay of the symposium. Fabien Bellat, in “An Uneasy Metamorphosis: The Afterlife of Constructivism in Stalinist Gardens,” depicts in historical detail how several landscape projects became essential “tools” in the creation of the new Soviet Man. Bellat traces how, at a time when Stalinist neo-academism was dominating the prevalent aesthetic imagination and shaping urban policies, marginalized constructivist architects were designing parks according to their imagination of socialism, one of the rare forms of expression they were allowed. Architects such as Ginzburg, Melnikov, Vlasov, and Korjev used a combination of modern principles along with a “subtle questioning of traditional forms,” thus making their mark in Soviet architectural legacy. Bellat argues that, with their unique organization of space, the parks became a “playground” for the new Soviet person, thus changing the meaning of places and giving the constructivists a chance to alter urban spaces after their own imaginations of socialism.

Often, different perceptions of the “past” became a part of the “new” social imagination, which informed the spatial reorganization under socialism. Juliana Maxim, in “Building the Collective: Theories of the Archaic in Socialist Modernism, Romania circa 1958,” writes about the process in which the concept of primitive communism and of unalienated labor, both of which are central to early Marxism, went through a revival in postwar Romania, in particular in the context of architecture. She examines how a Marxian model of precapitalist society, rooted in community, cooperation, and a craft-based productive structure, found life in the urban and architectural forms of the socialist experience of the country. While looking for “a synthesis between a peasant worldview” in a country that was largely agricultural and “the workings of the modern socialist state,” Maxim argues—through the examples of sites such as the Romanian Village Museum in Bucharest—that a “retrospective vision” of an archaic commune had taken hold of Romanian intellectuals; this is especially seen in the work of the anthropologist Henri H. Stahl, whose ethnographic work on the Romanian countryside, in which he argued that the earlier forms of agrarian society in Romania were communal, was immensely influential, and it is also seen in new forms of urban collectivities, which referenced these earlier imagined social forms. Maxim shows that, quite in contrast with the common wisdom that Socialism produced tedious and monotonous environments, the architectural types of Socialism, as in the case of Romania, in fact reflected a rich theory of form and practice, forming connections with a past imagined to be based on community while at the same time addressing Socialism’s concern for equality and shared experience across classes.

Just as Maxim sees references to a perceived communal agrarian past in the building of the urban environment of Romania, the next contribution looks at a similar process of historicizing in reference to the early-twentieth-century Soviet avant-garde in the context of Soviet Estonia. Mari Laanemets's contribution, entitled “In Search of a Humane Environment: Environment, Identity, and Design in the 1960–70s,” explores the new approaches to architecture that emerged after Stalin’s death during the Khrushchev Thaw. In a speech at the Second National Congress of Builders in December 1954, Khrushchev promised to set society back on a Leninist course, and he encouraged builders to utilize industrial methods in construction, with modular buildings, and to renounce the embellishments and decor common under Stalin. In Soviet Estonia, this change presented an opportunity for designers and artists to rethink the relationship of the individual and the built environment. As Laanemets explains, this change in focus precipitated a return to the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s and to the humanism in Marx's early writings as the basis to reenvision and rebuild Communist society. Artists, architects, and designers theorized notions of integral living environments that facilitated education, agency, and empowerment. This change in vision, Laanemets explains, demonstrates that the principles of humanism cannot be achieved merely through decoration but require opportunities for openness and active participation.

The rethinking of the relation between the new society and organized space went through torturous and meandering paths in all of the former Socialist countries. In the former German Democratic Republic, the oppressiveness and inadequacies of Socialist realism were fought through references to nineteenth-century romantic traditions. In “Subversive Landscapes: The Symbolic Representation of Socialist Landscapes in the Visual Arts of the German Democratic Republic,” Oliver Sukrow analyzes the incorporation of the romantic traditions of the nineteenth century into the socialist culture of the GDR, focusing on the works of the landscape painter Wolfgang Mattheuer, whose influences include the philosophical work of Lothar Kühne as well as the style of the romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. Sukrow traces the transformation of the attitude of Marxist intellectuals toward romanticism from one of condemnation to that of an “autonomous form of historical imagination” that critically engages with real Socialism. The author explores this process through the work of Mattheuer, conceived within the framework of Sotzromantizm as an element of public discourse and not merely an end in itself, and thus also supporting the view that the analysis of symbolic representation has to be done within its own historical time and place.

In exactly such a historical contextualization, as with all the contributions to this issue, the next essay seeks to understand how the full process of building and the use of particular building materials reflected a certain romantic nationalist imagination under socialism in North Russia. In “‘A Wonderful Song of Wood’: Heritage Architecture and the Search for Historical Authenticity in North Russia,” Alexey Golubev examines the post–World War II architectural preservation movement in North Russia that treated local vernacular architecture as a key to understanding authentic national history. Early Soviet Marxist architects and urban planners of the 1920s and 1930s, Golubev explains, aspired to transform urban space in ways that would facilitate the emergence of new social relations, and they sought to objectify their understanding of modernity with the use of materials such as concrete, iron, glass, and plastic. As nationalist interpretations of Soviet history emerged in the 1930s and intensified during World War II, architectural preservationists sought to collect, preserve, and display the historical use of wood as a construction material in North Russian village architecture of the late eighteenth century. This movement was partially influenced by romantic nationalist forms of historical imagination, and given its significance, Golubev argues that wood should be added to the register of materials that were instrumental in the objectification of socialism.

The romantic imagination of a past—in this case an “imperial” one—in Soviet Belarus is the theme of the final essay in the symposium. In “‘The Land under the White Wings’: The Romantic Landscaping of Socialist Belarus,” Elena Gapova examines the ways in which intellectuals and academics in the 1960s began to rediscover and reimagine the “native lands” of the Belarusian countryside. Gapova’s title draws the metaphor “the land under the white wings” from the work of Belarusian romantic writer Uladzimir Karatkevich, who contributed to the romantic shift in reimagining native lands. As Gapova explains, Russian imperial ethnography portrayed the Belarusian countryside as a space with no history, characterized by wild nature, swamps, bogs, wetlands, poor soils, and misery. In the context of post–World War II industrialization and urbanization, Karatkevich and other writers began to question and reimagine the Belarusian landscape, recovering the lost history of abandoned churches, manors, architectural ruins, and castles, which physically symbolized the class struggle of the landed aristocracy. The romantic landscaping of Belarus provided a means to reinterpret the past, and by the mid-1960s this effort became legitimized with the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Historical Sites in both the Russian Federation and Belarus. With governmental funding for renovation, some historical sites and national landmarks, Gapova writes, became tourist spaces with music festivals, opera performances, and medieval reenactments, which transformed the space yet left its history still incomplete.

As integral parts of space, objects within a space also carry symbolic importance. The Art/iculations piece in this issue explores the symbolic meaning of a monument. In his essay “Against the Wall: Ideology and Form in Mies van der Rohe’s Monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht,” Michael Chapman examines Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's monument. In 1926, Mies designed and the German Communist Party constructed a “proletarian” brick monument in the Friedrichsfelde cemetery in Berlin to commemorate the ill-fated Spartacist uprising of 1919, during which the police murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The monument itself consisted of an elongated brick wall (twelve meters long, four meters deep, and six meters high) that included a podium and stage for political rallies. It became a sight of mass demonstrations in Berlin until the Nazis destroyed it in 1935. For Chapman, Mies's monument was not typically revolutionary and was idiosyncratic in that it contravened some of the legacies of architectural modernism while also uniting the trajectories of modernism, the avant-garde, and the radical Left. Chapman examines the ways in which the monument reflects the values of Mies as well as the values of Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

As all the contributions to this volume attest, space, built or nonbuilt, is a scene of social struggles. The issue's Remarx piece reflects on how space can be reinvented in a collective imagination in the twenty-first century based on lived experiences. In “Reinventing Political Economy: Squat’s the Story,” Darragh Power, with Michael Phoenix, reflect on the experience of squatting, discussing specifically the case of the Grangegorman Community Collective in Dublin. Also known as Squat City, the community was recently dispossessed, thus joining a long list of similar grassroots projects that have been destroyed. For Power, Grangegorman represented an alternative form of living—a collective one—in a city of thousands of vacant dwellings coexisting with extortionate rents. The squat was not only a place of free accommodation to residents of diverse backgrounds ranging from students to single mothers but was also a real space of living together, with collective projects such as a common garden, and of creativity involving art projects, thus providing an alternative to private property and isolated and alienating living arrangements. In consumer- and consumption-oriented capitalist societies where living spaces prioritize profit making above all else, collective arrangements such as Squat City, as captured by the eloquent expression of one of its residents, are “full of tomorrow.” Power concludes his essay with a set of reflections on the experience of anticapitalist collective projects and argues that these projects need to address the issue of consolidation of power and to imagine how this consolidation must be institutionalized, as movements that “retreat into pockets of semiautonomous zones” do not offer any real alternative to capitalism.

In the final contribution to this issue, Diana Boros starts her review of Owen Hatherley's Landscapes of Communism on the premise that we—academics and nonacademics alike—rarely acknowledge the impact of our physical environment on our spirit as well as on our sense of “living together.” For Boros, Hatherley's book sets a welcome precedent by challenging this indifference in a historical analysis of Communist design in the former Soviet bloc. Boros argues that Hatherley, tracing the changes in architectural design, makes the fundamental argument that Soviet architecture represented neither actually existing communism nor what Marx had depicted but was rather an antidemocratic, antisocial, and autocratic vision. Boros concludes by drawing our attention to the significance of the shrinking of public spaces in our cities, thus emphasizing the need for a reorganization of space as a reflection of a rearrangement of power relations in society.

Most of these pieces tell us the story that while certain perspectives may struggle for hegemony, this is never a simple struggle; these efforts always have cracks through which alternatives can seep in and reveal themselves and affect the emerging picture.

The coming days of social convulsions, no doubt, will also be a time of struggles over space and its organization. It falls on us to reflect on our alternatives and pick our sides in these struggles.

—The Editors

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Page last revised: June 27, 2017