Trashing Georges Bataille, "Accursed" Stalinist

Born in France in 1897, Georges Bataille was a very creative, controversial and strange person. A librarian by profession, he wrote a great many poems, essays and books during his life (he died in 1962). Some of these writings were novels; most were works of critical theory (non-fiction writings on society and politics). Bataille's name is often closely associated with Freudian psychoanalysis, Surrealism, Marxism and the occult.

Because of the very strong and mostly acknowledged influence of Bataille's various concepts and methodological approaches on the writings of such younger and sometimes better known critical theorists as Guy Debord ("potlatch"), Jean Baudrillard ("gift exchange"), Michel Foucault ("the order of things"), and Jacques Derrida ("nonlogical difference"), almost all of Bataille's many books have been published in English translations by university presses in America. No doubt many of these books are required reading in courses in literary theory, the history of modern art, sociology, political economy, psychology, and ethnology.

Originally written in French and privately published in 1949, the first part of Bataille's massive trilogy La Part Maudite was re-printed by Les Editions de Minuit in 1967. It was re-printed again in the 1970s, when Gallimard began publishing Bataille's Oeuvres Completes (nine volumes so far). In 1989, Zone Books in New York City published a hardcover translation under the title The Accursed Share, Volume I: Consumption (the trilogy as a whole is subtitled "An Essay on General Economy"). In 1998, Zone published a paperback edition of the book, as well as both hardcover and paperback editions of translations of Volumes II and III.

Though we have only commented upon them once before, Bataille's books, especially the ones on art and politics, have long been of interest to us here at NOT BORED! We were excited by the prospect of reading Volume I (hereafter referred to as The Accursed Share) because it clearly marked a return to the subject matter -- unproductive ("wasteful") expenditures, human sacrifices, potlatch, and the critique of classical utility -- Bataille first explored in one of our favorite essays, "The Notion of Expenditure" (written in 1933 and published in English translation in Visions of Excess, a collection of essays Bataille wrote between 1927 and 1939).

It's pretty damn strange that Bataille's "Theoretical Introduction" to The Accursed Share mentions neither "The Notion of Expenditure" nor any of his previous writings. It's as if (Bataille wants us to believe that) this is the very first time that he is pointing out that 1) classical political economy is built on the unquestioned and yet demonstrably false premises that scarcity is the defining aspect of the economy, that individuals will always act according to their self-interest, and that self-interest always involves growth, the accumulation of wealth, and a reduction of waste; but that 2) a study of non-European, non-Christian cultures shows that surplus is actually the defining aspect of the economy, that growth can never be an end in itself, that wealth can indeed be accumulated but precisely for the purposes of deliberately wasting it in spectacular displays of power (human sacrifices, wars, religious monuments, festivals and mass entertainments); and that, in any case, 3) waste is unavoidable. And Bataille (almost) gets away with it, too: he introduces so much new material, material not covered in "The Notion of Expenditure" -- Islam, Buddhism and the 13th Dalai Lama, and the connections between Calvinism and Marxism -- that his 1933 essay is apparently outmoded, superceded, discarded and forgotten. Bataille has discretely tried to place "The Notion of Expenditure" into the proverbial "Trashcan of History," hoping that no one would notice or care.

Bataille also wants to pretend (wants us to believe) that the entire book, all of The Accursed Share, might also have ended up in the trash. In his preface, he writes:

Writing this book in which I was saying that energy finally can only be wasted, I myself was using my energy, my time, working; my research answered in a fundamental way the desire to add to the amount of wealth acquired for mankind. Should I say that under these conditions I sometimes could only respond to the truth of my book and could not go on writing it? A book that no one awaits, that answers no formulated question, that the author would not have written if he had followed its lesson to the letter -- such is the oddity that today I offer the reader. This invites distrust at the outset [...]

It's a fitting conceit, a pretty good joke, and it's irony certainly brings a smile; but it does indeed invite distrust at the outset. Note the (intentional?) ambiguity of "Should I say that under these conditions I sometimes could only respond to the truth of my book and could not go on writing it?" The only response to this evasively rhetorical question is: "Look, Georges: You should say that you stopped writing it, but only if it's true. If it isn't true, then you shouldn't say it."

Bataille doesn't say why he decided to put aside his reservations and complete all three volumes of The Accursed Share. He certainly didn't finish Volume I because of the uniqueness of the Marshall Plan, which is the subject of its very last chapter, or because of the unprecedented scale and extent of the devastation during the Second World War. Bataille finished the book because, like Breton, Aragon, Eluard and others in the Surrealist movement, he'd become a Stalinist (15 years after the others!), and because Stalin -- the whole Soviet Union, even -- really needed people like Georges to come to its defense.

Though many radical artists and intellectuals in France and elsewhere in Europe were Trotskyists in 1949 (Cornelius Castoriadis, for example), very few were open supporters of Stalinism. Andre Breton and most of the others had distanced themselves from or openly denounced Stalinism (if not the Communist Party, as well) because of the Soviet Union's murderous campaign to "collectivize" the kulaks in 1937 (an infamous example of what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation) and because of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. The same may be said for 1967, when The Accursed Share was first re-printed: though there (still) were Trotskyists in France, there were very few Stalinists. Those who were Stalinists -- Jean Paul Sartre, among them -- were denounced by the Situationist International. But there is no denunciation of Bataille in Internationale Situationniste, Guy Debord's La Societe du Spectacle or one of the books by his one-time colleague, Henri Lefebvre. The only thing Allan Stoekl -- the editor and translator of the Visions of Excess collection -- can say on the subject of Batatille's post-War writings is: "In his later writings (of the 1940s and 50s) Bataille is no longer overtly Marxist." While this remark might be taken as indirect evidence that Stalin himself wasn't much of a Marxist, it doesn't even admit that Bataille was a Stalinist.

In the chapter called "Soviet Industrialization," Bataille writes:

The collectivization of lands is in theory the most questionable part of the changes in economic structure. There is no doubt that it cost dearly; indeed, it is regarded as the cruelest moment of an endeavour that was never mild. But if one judges this development of Russian resources in a general way, one risks forgetting the conditions in which it was begun and the necessity that compelled it [...] These considerations had all the more force since industrialization always demands a large displacement of the population to the cities [...] But a sudden [industrial] development creates a call for manpower to which the response cannot long be delayed. Only agrarian "collectivism," coupled with mechanization, could ensure the maintenance and growth of agricultural production; without them, the proliferation of factories would have only led to disequilibrium [...] Situations arise in which, wrongly or rightly, acts of cruelty, harming individuals, seem negligible in view of the misfortunes they are meant to avoid [...] Today it is easy to see that the Soviets organizing production were replying in advance to a question of life and death. I do not mean to justify, but to understand; given that purpose, it seems superficial to me to dwell on horror [...] Apparently the Soviet Union, and, even, speaking more generally, Russia -- owing to the czarist legacy -- would not have been able to survive without a massive allocation of its resources to industrial equipment. Apparently, if this allocation had been even a little less rigorous, even a little less hard to bear than Stalin made it, Russia could have foundered [...] And we would rather die than establish a reign of terror; but a single man can die, and an immense population is faced with no other possibility than life. The Russian world had to make up for the backwardness of czarist society and this was necessarily so painful, it demanded an effort so great, that the hard way -- in every sense the most costly way -- became its only solution.

What's most striking about this chilling passage -- aside from its monstrous cynicism -- is the fact that, despite the passing reference to costliness in the last sentence, it has nothing to do with the discussions that introduced them. Forced social displacement on a massive scale, systematic theft of land by the State and mass murder ("terror") aren't "understood" here in scientific or empirical terms, that is, in terms of the structural unavoidability of waste and the stark contrast between "primitive" practices such as potlatch and the puritanical maintenance of accounts in modern capitalist society. Ironically, these terms only come (back) into play when Bataille turns to the Marshal Plan, which he asserts was a potlatch-like response -- not to the poverty created by the defeat of the Nazi regime -- but to the success of the Russian Army at Stalingrad.

No, Bataille justifies Stalinist terror in the calculating, moralizing, ideological terms of political expediency. Despite the radicality of some of Bataille's ideas, here he doesn't question anything of real importance: neither the historical inevitability of Bolshevism, the political legitimacy of the so-called Soviet Union itself (the Soviets themselves were forcibly suppressed in the early 1920s), the necessity of industrialization (both in general and in the specific case of the Russian economy), nor the desirability of Russia's survival. As Bataille himself showed in a preceding chapter, the Aztecs were conquered; Islam declined; Tibet was undermined. The United States, Bataille says, is also doomed. Why shouldn't Russia meet the same (unavoidable) fate?

It's also striking that Bataille's argument includes the following remark: "But if one judges this development of Russian resources in a general way, one risks forgetting the conditions in which it was begun and the necessity that compelled it" (italics added). In other words, one must concentrate on specific circumstances, not the general situation. This plainly contradicts two other remarks made by Bataille -- "Situations arise in which, wrongly or rightly, acts of cruelty, harming individuals, seem negligible in view of the misfortunes they are meant to avoid," and "[B]ut a single man can die, and an immense population is faced with no other possibility than life" -- as well as the central premise of general economy. "Are there not causes and effects that will appear only provided that the general data of the economy are studied?" Bataille had asked, rhetorically, in his introductory remarks concerning "the meaning" of general economy. "Will we be able to make ourselves the masters of such dangerous activity (and one that we could not abandon in any case) without having grasped its general consequences? Should we not, given the constant development of economic forces, pose the general problems that are linked to the movement of energy on the globe?" Yes, Georges, we should, even when looking at a "special case" such as Stalinist Russia.

And so, it's regrettable that Bataille decided to persevere and complete Volume I of The Accursed Share. Even though this Stalinist's analyses of eroticism and sovereignty are no doubt fascinating, we will nevertheless refrain from reading Volumes II and III of his trilogy. And we will also be quick to question those who say they are avid readers of Bataille's books to see if they know about his apologies for Stalinism.

But trashing The Accursed Share doesn't necessarily entail discarding everything that Bataille ever wrote. We still value the essays contained in Visions of Excess, especially "The Notion of Expenditure," which speaks of "revolution" and "class struggle" against bourgeois society as a whole in precisely those places that The Accursed Share speaks of the "evolution" of "socialism" in the Soviet Union and a "dynamic peace" between the USSR and America.

One notes [Bataille wrote in 1933] that in primitive societies, where the exploitation of man by man is still fairly weak, the products of human activity not only flow in great quantities to rich men because of the protection or social leadership services these men supposedly provide, but also because of the spectacular collective expenditures for which they must pay. In so-called civilized societies, the fundamental obligation of wealth disappeared only in a fairly recent period [...] Everything that was generous, orgiastic, and excessive has disappeared; the themes of rivalry upon which individual activity still depends develop in obscurity, and are as shameful as belching. The representatives of the bourgeoisie have adopted an effaced manner; wealth is now displayed behind closed doors, in accordance with depressing and boring conventions [...] Such trickery has become the principle reason for living, working, and suffering for those who lack the courage to condemn this moldy society to revolutionary destruction [...] As the class that possesses the wealth -- having received with wealth the obligation of functional expenditure -- the modern bourgeoisie is characterized by the refusal in principle of this obligation. It has distinguished itself from the aristocracy through the fact that it has consented only to spend for itself, and within itself -- in other words, by hiding its expenditures as much as possible from the other classes [...] In opposition, the people's consciousness is reduced to maintaining profoundly the principle of expenditure by representing bourgeois existence as the shame of man and as a sinister cancellation [...] As for the masters and exploiters, whose function is to create the contemptuous forms that exclude human nature -- causing this nature to exist at the limits of the earth, in other words in mud -- a simple law of reciprocity requires that they be condemned to fear, to the great night when their beautiful phrases will be drowned out by death screams in riots.

(December 2002.)



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