Furio Jesi | The Suspension of Historical Time

R.B. Kitaj | The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg, 1960. In the centre of the painting a figure holds Luxemburg’s corpse, while at top right is a collaged transcription of an account of the murder. Kitaj associated Luxemburg with his grandmother Helene, who was forced to flee Vienna in the 1930s. The veiled figure at top left represents his maternal grandmother, who fled Russia as a result of earlier pogroms of the Jewish people.


Andrea Cavalletti

The text we are presenting here, “The Suspension of Historical Time,” is drawn from the book Spartakus: Simbologia della rivolta, which Furio Jesi wrote between 1968 and 1969. Jesi was born into a partly Jewish family in Turin in 1941 and died in Genoa in 1980; despite this early demise, he was one of twentieth-century Italy’s most important and original thinkers and essayists. A true enfant prodige, he got his start as an Egyptologist when he was barely fifteen. In the early 1960s, he turned to the study of mythology and the science of myth, or rather, of how ancient myths re-emerge in the modern era, at times in distorted and treacherous form.

In 1964, Jesi began corresponding with Karl Kerényi, a scholar whom he always admired and took as a model. In that very period, Kerényi had given a lecture in Rome, about genuine myth and its “technicization,” which identified the true mythic experience, i.e., inspired contact with the echter Mythos (Kerényi also calls it Urphänomen, an expression borrowed from Goethe), as something that only poets are capable of in our era. Above all, he drew a distinction between “genuine myth” and the exploitative, distorted adoption of ancient mythemes for political ends: a dangerous use, or technicization, that he saw in both totalitarian propaganda and the ideas of Georges Sorel.

From this point on, one could say that Jesi focused his entire attention on critically re-examining this distinction of Kerényi’s and taking it to both profound and ironic extremes.The differences in theory and politics between the young student (who identified with the radical Italian Left) and his mentor (a bourgeois humanist who was a friend of Thomas Mann’s) grew into an open rift four years later, when the dialogue between the two scholars brusquely came to an end. It was May of 1968. Jesi later went to visit the Paris of assemblies and barricades. Upon returning to Italy, he began a new book, his book on revolt.

On the night between the eleventh and twelfth of December 1969, he wrote to a friend:

I can make the glorious announcement that an hour ago, I finished rereading the full manuscript of Spartakus: Simbologia della rivolta. It’s done. . . . It’s about Rosa Luxemburg, but there’s also quite a bit about Dostoyevsky, Storm, Fromentin, Brecht, and, of course, Thomas Mann! It is much more “fragmentary” than Germania segreta: the “links” are reduced to a minimum, in a monologue that—with all due créances—bears more resemblance to Finnegans Wake than to The Accumulation of Capital.

Although it deals at length with the events that shook Berlin in 1919, almost mimicking them with the intense rhythm of its prose, Spartakus is not a history of that movement or insurrection, but a true phenomenological investigation of revolt. Jesi saw the relationship between myth and politics as both a cognitive and an existential question, analyzing it as a problem related to time.

While revolution is presented as a strategy that can be long-term in nature, entirely focused on creating the conditions for change within the historical process, revolt is instead defined as a suspension of time. In this suspension, where destruction, knowledge, and collective appropriation take place, where “the city [is] really felt as one’s own city,” every act counts in and of itself, not in terms of its consequences; today is not a preparation for tomorrow, but rather, an “untimely” moment (in the Nietzschean sense), the instant epiphany of an alternative and utterly new time. Revolt breaks the sequence of “normal time,” that is, of daily life marked out by the pace of work, which is the result of a “bourgeois manipulation of time,” while adopting and spreading the language of “genuine propaganda,” through the words and actions of the rebels.

In these two definitions one can see a new use of Kerényi’s terminology: “technicization” becomes the “manipulation of time,” and what is deemed “genuine” is not the experience Kerényi reserved for poets, but the very propaganda he so harshly criticized. For Jesi, it is not a question of separating the time of myth from political action, but, on the contrary, of rendering access to this alternative time truly collective and enduring, to free the revolt from the temporal and spatial boundaries of Berlin in 1919 or Paris in 1968.

Kerényi had once explained that the “festival,” the sacred, celebratory event that for the ancients was a point of contact between history and myth, a moment for renewing the community within a truly alternative time, remains an impossible, ungraspable experience for modern man. Jesi’s ingenious response was to extrapolate a political theory from this impossibility. Spartakus was discovered among his papers and published only after his death, in 2000. In 1976, however, he had written that the impossibility of the festival as a truly collective moment derives from the characteristics of bourgeois society, and that the study of myth also lies within those bounds. It is necessary to tear down the barriers of this culture, he added, to break through its boundaries rather than just trying to bend them.The epistemological problem and political problem merged, as he saw it, in the destructive paradigm of revolt.

Andrea Cavalletti (b. 1967) teaches Aesthetics and Contemporary Literature at Università Iuav di Venezia.


The Suspension of Historical Time

Marxist doctrine has added, to the moral condemnation of capitalism, the certainty that iron economic laws are fated to determine, within a certain time limit, the decay and collapse of capitalism itself. Not by chance it has been noted that Marx remained faithful to his Jewish origins by transposing the image of the chosen people onto the world proletariat and Abraham’s pact with God into the fatedness of economic laws. The comparison could also work with the eschatological outlook of Christianity, if Christ had not explicitly affirmed that his kingdom “is not of this world.”To this world there belongs instead the promised land, even though it is no doubt blasphemous to identify it with a conquerable, and today conquered, Palestine. It is true, moreover, that the parallel between the inevitable better future predicted by Marxism and the one “remembered” by the Jewish prophets is at best very partial. The promised land cannot be conquered through a struggle with other men, which would confirm its predestined belonging, while the era of welfare and justice predicted by Marxism can only be reached if the fated consequences of economic laws are accompanied by the struggle of the exploited against the exploiters. Marx seems to have been convinced of the inevitability of this second aspect of economic and social metamorphosis as well. There should be a fated correspondence between the progressive growth of misery, oppression, and exploitation, on the one hand, and the growing resistance of the working class, “a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself.” The advent of socialism should under every aspect have its premises in capitalism, affirming itself in correspondence with the progressive and inevitable accentuation of the contradictions internal to capitalism.Therefore the setbacks and pure and simple defeats of the exploited class could not in any way alter the direction of an extremely dramatic but inalterable and unstoppable process. At the same time, the strategy of the organizations of the working class should be founded on a painstaking evaluation of the mutable balance of forces corresponding to the situations determined by the internal dialectic of capitalism, so as not to miss the opportunities to seize power when it is possible to do so, but also to avoid sending organizational forces and structures to their certain defeat when the possibility does not obtain.

In brief, it is a question, on the one hand, of a correct evaluation of the times founded on the analysis of socio-economic conditions and of the balance of forces present within them; on the other, of a progressive endeavor of development and organization of the exploited class in order that it not find itself unprepared when the clash comes.

This political orientation, and the philosophy of history that corresponds to it, encounter a grave obstacle in the phenomenon of revolt. We use the word revolt to designate an insurrectional movement that differs from revolution.The difference between revolt and revolution should not be sought in their respective aims; they can both have the same aim: to seize power. What principally distinguishes revolt from revolution is instead a different experience of time. If, on the basis of the ordinary meaning of the two words, revolt is a sudden insurrectional explosion, which can be placed within a strategic horizon but which in itself does not imply a long-distance strategy, and revolution is instead a strategic complex of insurrectional movements, coordinated and oriented over the mid- to long-term toward ultimate objectives, then we could say that revolt suspends historical time, suddenly establishing a time in which everything that is done has a value in itself, independently of its consequences and of its relations with the transitory or perennial complex that constitutes history. Revolution would instead be wholly and deliberately immersed in historical time.

The study of the genesis and unfolding of the Spartacist insurrection will allow us to verify the exactness of this distinction, and also to provide a more precise account of the particular experience of time that we think is peculiar to revolt.

During the first fifteen days of January 1919, the experience of time changed in Berlin. For four years, the war had suspended the usual rhythm of life. Every hour had become an hour of waiting; waiting for the next move (one’s own or the enemies’), all instants of a greater wait, the wait for victory. In the first days of January 1919, that wait, which had matured over the previous four years, seemed fulfilled by the sudden and tremendously brief apparition of an atypical time, in which everything that happened—with extreme speed—seemed to happen forever. It was no longer a matter of living and acting in the framework of tactics and strategy, within which intermediate objectives could be immensely distant from the final objective but nonetheless prefigured it—the greater the distance, the more anxious the wait. “Now or never!” It was a matter of acting once and for all, and the fruit of the action was the content of the action itself. Every decisive choice, every irrevocable action, meant being in agreement with time; every hesitation, to be out of time.When it all ended, some of the real protagonists had left the stage forever.

On December 29, 1918, the Spartakusbund (Spartacus League) had called its own national congress. Up to that moment, the Spartacists had not dissociated themselves from the Independent Social Democratic Party, which by then was participating in the social-democratic government of Ebert and Scheidemann. To stand up against the compromises of the independent socialist leaders with the social democrats, the Spartacists demanded several times during the winter of 1918 the convening of the Independent Social Democratic Party’s congress: they could hope to rally to their positions the whole left wing of the party, which was already in open polemic with the leaders taking part in the government. For the very same reason, the leadership of the party tried and succeeded to stop the convening of the congress. The Spartacists could no longer apply the tactic previously advocated by Rosa Luxemburg in the articles published in Duisburg in Kampf : to adhere to the Independent Social Democratic Party, while keeping intact the Spartacists’ own autonomy of program and action, in order to take advantage of the considerable organizational structure of the party and to maintain the relationship with the masses that the party could guarantee.To remain inside the Independent Social Democratic Party now meant for the Spartacists implicitly to endorse participation in the social-democratic government, without managing positively to employ the party’s organization for the sake of the class struggle. At that point, there no longer existed a class party in Germany. The concrete presence of a class party seemed indispensable to the continuation of the struggle: that new party would have probably brought together, besides the Spartacists, the so-called left radicals who had always refused to join the Independent Social Democratic Party, and a part of the left wing of the independent socialists. For these reasons, the first motion of the Spartakusbund congress on December 30, 1918, was the founding of the German Communist Party.The left radicals, who were assembled that same day, decided to join it.

The Spartakusbund congress, now formally the congress of the German Communist Party, was faced with the question of whether or not to take part in the elections for the National Assembly. The leadership of the Spartakusbund, Rosa Luxemburg in particular, was in favor of running for election and participating in the National Assembly in order to “attack and bring down that bastion. . . . To denounce loudly and without hesitation all the swindles and intrigues of that dignified assembly, to unmask step by step before the masses its counter-revolutionary activity, to call upon the masses to make up their minds, to commit themselves.” But despite the attitude of the leadership, the delegates to the congress voted against taking part in the elections. To no avail, Luxemburg had sounded a note of caution on December 30: “We do not have the right to reprise and repeat the illusions of the first phase of the revolution, that of November 9; to believe, in other words, that it is enough for the victory of the socialist revolution to overthrow the capitalist government and replace it with another.” The majority of the delegates were convinced that the first task of the new party was precisely the immediate elimination of the obstacles to the revolution, above all the social-democratic party. Those obstacles were viewed as so many heads you needed to knock down in a target shoot. Many heads, of course: the social democrats, the capitalists, the military. But always only heads to knock down, symbols of power to conquer; battle, direct and immediate conflict, therefore, since you must not hesitate in giving battle when the definitive victory depends only on a test of strength, and you are convinced you are strong enough.The delegates all harbored the conviction that they were strong: not because they simply dismissed Luxemburg’s preoccupation about the nigh-on negligible revolutionary responsive- ness of the countryside, but because they possessed the certainty that conquest of the symbols of power—above all, therefore, the conquest of Berlin—would of necessity have meant total victory.

In Berlin, the revolutionary forces were considerable. But on December 27, even before the end of the Spartakusbund congress, there began the amassing of troops around the capital ordered by the social-democratic government. On January 4, at the city gates Ebert and Noske inspected the so-called Lüttwitz Section, comprising the division of horse-mounted hunters, the 17th and 31st Infantry Divisions, the provincial hunters corps, and the Hülsen Free Corps. At dawn of the same day, the minister of the interior stripped of his authority the police prefect Eichhorn, an independent socialist against whom the social-democratic paper Politisch-Parlamentarische Nachrichten had, starting on January 1, mounted a slander campaign, accusing him of having used public moneys to prepare for civil war. As police prefect, Eichhorn did not depend on the minister of the interior but on Berlin’s Executive Council. He refused to accept his deposition and declared himself ready to abide by the decisions of the Central Council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils. Even though in that Central Council the right-wing socialists had a majority, the government refused. At this point, the Independent Social Democratic Party called a demonstration in favor of Eichhorn for January 5, which was joined by the Communist Party. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered under the police prefecture and called on Eichhorn to remain at his post, declaring themselves ready to defend him. At the same time, there was a meeting of the leadership of the Independent Social Democratic Party, the revolutionary delegates, and two representatives of the Communist Party, Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck. The meeting came to a close with the decision not only to defend Eichhorn but to overthrow the Ebert-Scheidemann social- democratic government. A revolutionary committee was constituted, presided over by Liebknecht, Paul Scholze, and Georg Ledebour.

In less than a week, the revolt that the majority of delegates to the Spartakusbund congress, by their refusal to take part in elections, had chosen as their program had become reality. We say revolt and not revolution, on the basis of the abovementioned distinction. The word revolution correctly designates the entire complex of short- and long-term actions that are carried out by those who are conscious of wanting to alter in historical time a political, social, economic situation, and who develop their own tactical and strategic plans by constantly considering the relations between cause and effect in historical time, within the farthest-seeing perspective possible. On December 30, 1918, Rosa Luxemburg had noted:

I have tried to show you that the November 9 revolution was above all a political one, while it still essentially has to become an economic revolution. . . . History makes our task more difficult than that of the bourgeois revolutions, when it sufficed to overthrow the central power and put in its place one or a couple of dozen new men. We have to work from below; and that corresponds precisely to the mass character of our revolution, which aims at the very foundations of the social structure. . . . Below, where the single owner confronts his salaried slave; below, where all the executive organs of class political power confront the objects of that power, the masses—it is there that we need, step by step, to wrench the instruments of power from those who control them, taking them into our own hands.

Every revolt can instead be described as a suspension of historical time. The greater part of those who take part in a revolt choose to commit their individuality to an action whose consequences they can neither know nor predict. At the moment of the clash, only a restricted minority is conscious of the entire strategic design within which the clash is inserted (even though said design exists)—as a precise, even if hypothetical, concatenation of causes and effects. The clash of the revolt distills the symbolic components of the ideology that has put the strategy in motion, and only these are truly perceived by the combatants. The adversary of the moment truly becomes the enemy, the rifle or club or bicycle chain truly becomes the weapon, the victory of the moment—be it partial or total—truly becomes, in and of itself, a just and good act for the defense of freedom, the defense of one’s class, the hegemony of one’s class.

Every revolt is battle, but a battle in which one has deliberately chosen to participate.The instant of revolt determines one’s fulgurating self-realization and self-objectification as part of a collectivity.The battle between good and evil, between survival and death, between success and failure, in which everyone is individually involved each and every day, is identified with the battle of the whole collectivity: all have the same weapons, all face the same obstacles, the same enemy. All experience the epiphany of the same symbols: everyone’s individual space, dominated by one’s personal symbols, by the shelter from historical time that everyone enjoys in their own individual symbology and mythology, widens, becoming the symbolic space common to an entire collectivity, the shelter from historical time in which a whole collectivity finds safety.

Every revolt is circumscribed by precise borders in historical time and historical space. Before it and after it lie the no-man’s-land and duration of each and everyone’s lives, in which are fought un- interrupted individual battles. The concept of permanent revolution reveals—rather than an uninterrupted duration of revolt in historical time—the will to succeed, at each and every moment, in suspending historical time so as to find collective refuge in the symbolic space and time of revolt. Until a moment before the clash, or at least before the programmed action with which the revolt begins, the potential rebel lives in his house or perhaps his refuge, often with his relatives; and as much as that residence and that environment may be provisional, precarious, conditioned by the imminent revolt, until the revolt begins they are the site of a more or less solitary individual battle, which continues to be the same as in the days in which the revolt did not seem imminent: the individual battle between good and evil, survival and death, success and failure. The sleep before the revolt—presuming the revolt begins at dawn!—may even be as tranquil as that of the Prince of Condé, but it does not possess the paradoxical tranquility of the moment of the clash. In the best of cases, it is an hour of truce for the individual who has gone to sleep without ceasing to feel like an individual.

One can love a city, one can recognize its houses and its streets in one’s remotest or dearest memories; but only in the hour of revolt is the city really felt as one’s own city: one’s own because it belongs to the I but at the same time to the “others”; one’s own because it is a battlefield that one has chosen and the collectivity too has chosen; one’s own because it is a circumscribed space in which historical time is suspended and in which every act is valuable in and of itself, in its absolutely immediate consequences. One appropriates a city by fleeing or advancing, charging and being charged, much more than by playing as children in its streets or strolling through it with a girl. In the hour of revolt one is no longer alone in the city.

But when the revolt has passed, independently of its outcome, everyone goes back to being an individual in a society that is better than, worse than, or the same as before. When the clash is over— you can be in prison, or in a hiding place, or calmly in your own home—the everyday individual battles begin again. If historical time is not further suspended in circumstances and for reasons that may even not be the same as those of the revolt, every happening, every action, is once again evaluated on the basis of its presumed or certain consequences.

The foundation of the German Communist Party preceded by only a few days the explosion of the Spartacist revolt. In the first motion of the party congress one can already recognize—no doubt with hindsight—the gravest ideological and strategic contradiction, destined to reveal itself most plainly in the revolt’s failure.With sixty- two votes against twenty-three, the congress delegates refused the party’s participation in the elections for the National Assembly. Rosa Luxemburg struggled to recognize in this choice, which she deemed wrong and against which she had vigorously argued, the almost obvi- ous and redeemable error of an organization taking its first steps: “It is natural for an infant to scream.” It seems instead that Leo Jogiches remained particularly shaken by the congress’s pronouncement, prob- ably drawing from it the conclusion that the party’s foundation had been premature.

In fact, it appears today that more than premature, the foundation of the party was insubstantial. The newborn German Communist Party was not—or, should we say, was not yet—a party. Its instrumentalization by its enemy, which dragged it into the revolt, met few obstacles precisely because it was not yet a party but, beyond formal appearances, a grouping of men all endowed to a greater or lesser degree with class consciousness and the will to fight.When accurately preordained circumstances brought the tension to breaking point, there was no longer a party, but a flag of revolt.

The failure of the Spartacist revolt (and even the onset of that revolt alone) was marked by a severe crisis of political organization and leadership. It was already a mistake to begin the revolt, but an equally serious weakness was manifest in the party’s incapacity to limit the extent of the defeat.

To the distinction between revolt and revolution we can add here the recognition of a basic contradiction between party and revolt.The German Communist Party was not lacking in capable and genuinely revolutionary leaders. Nearly all the party leadership was in agreement with Rosa Luxemburg about the need to run in the National Assembly elections in order to unhinge the assembly from within and to use it as a tribune to call the masses to a greater and more effective political maturity. Should one accuse those leaders of sacrificing their line of struggle to democratic scruples? To have put to the vote, rather than authoritatively affirmed, the program that alone they considered effective?

The contradiction between party and revolt foregrounds the terms of the extremely severe crisis that the party has been undergoing over the past fifty years in the domain of the class struggle. This is certainly not because the replacement of party political leadership with the pure and simple expression of the rebel’s will to fight is a realistic proposal. Rather, it is because in multiple circumstances the parties corresponding to the exploited classes have been unable either to promote the revolutionary development of those classes or to channel into the process of development the potential for struggle that is otherwise destined to issue not into revolution but into revolt.

The German Communist Party in 1919 did not have the time to promote any development of the class, because a few days after its foundation the revolt had already exploded. What we need to assess is why that party did not find a way to be—and therefore was not—a party, but only the grouping of a class in revolt.

It is not uncommon for a political party to be hostile to the imminent revolt desired by a part of its members or at least by those who profess an ideology similar to its own. As a collective reality, a party (or perhaps it is better to be more specific: a class party) can find itself in competition with the collective reality determined by the revolt.

Class parties and unions are collective realities to the extent that they are objective realities: that is, these realities are collective inasmuch as they objectively constitute the structures of the complex of relations existing within the class and between the class and the outside. Precisely because of this exhaustive character, class parties and unions can turn out to be hostile to the imminent revolt. In the revolt, in fact, a reality manifests itself that is also objective, collective, exhaustive, exclusive. Parties and unions are driven back by the revolt into the “before” and “after” of the revolt itself. Either they accept to temporarily suspend their self-consciousness of their own value or they find themselves in open competition with the revolt. In the revolt, parties and unions do not exist anymore: there only exist groups of contenders. The organizational structures of parties and unions can be used by those who prepare the revolt: but once the revolt begins they become simple instruments to guarantee the operative affirmation of values that are not the values of the party and the union but only the intrinsic value of the revolt. The ideologies of the party and the unions can be the same as those of the rebels, but in the instant of revolt the rebels perceive only the symbolic components of these ideologies.This does not happen as long as parties and unions act as such. In the life of the party or the union the symbolic components of ideology are not lacking in weight, but they never become the only ideological element: the class party and class union are structures immersed in historical time and space; revolt is the suspension of historical time and space.We expressly say suspension and not evasion, because evasion is usually understood as a choice fatedly imposed by weakness in the face of the sufferings of history, while revolt—the suspension of historical time and space—can correspond to a precise strategic choice. What we wish to say, then, is that revolt can also be evasion, but cannot only be evasion.

Participation in the life of the class party or union is determined by the choice of an uninterrupted series of actions in which it is believed class consciousness exteriorizes itself. Participation in revolt is determined by the choice of an action closed in on itself, which from outside can be seen as inserted in a strategic context, but from inside appears as absolutely autonomous, isolated, valid in itself, independently of its non-immediate consequences.

The members of a class party or union can, as such, decide on the strategic opportunity of a revolt: but that means they decide to temporarily suspend the life of the party or union. Such a decision can be motivated by the foreseeable consequences of the revolt as considered from the outside, in a strategic context, not as an action closed in on itself but as the cause of foreseeable and determined effects. However, because this means choosing the revolt not due to its internal reality, but because of its external one, such a choice instrumentalizes the potential rebels insofar as it is made by a minority. Whoever does not make the strategic choice of revolt, but finds himself faced with the occasion of revolt—an occasion provided by those who effectively made that choice—is instrumentalized. His actions in the revolt are capitalized on and employed by those for whom the revolt was a strategic choice. Even the rebel who belongs to a party or a union whose leading cadre has decided on revolt is instrumentalized; participation in a party or a union does not imply participation in a strategic choice of revolt made by the leadership of the party or union, or even by only a few among those leaders. Party or union, on the one hand, and revolt, on the other, are two intrinsically autonomous realities. Analogously, it could be said that the choice of revolt by some members of a party or union (not by part of the party or the union, that is, of its leading cadre) does not involve the party or the union. However, such an assertion would not be very realistic, since while such a choice could not involve the responsibility of the party or the union in deciding the revolt, it would in any case—from the standpoint of historical consequences—also implicate in the revolt the non-consenting, non-responsible organizational structures of the party or union. A class party or union cannot be involved in a revolt because its scale, its collective reality, its value, cannot be those of the revolt. But this is in fact a theoretical argument. Even if it is not implicated in the sense we spoke of, the class party or union is inexorably forced to endure the consequences of the revolt if it takes place. What’s more, on the occasion of the revolt the party’s or union’s most responsible members are confronted with extremely severe problems and contradictions, in the face of which every choice has decisive consequences for the future life of the party or union and for the class struggle. And it may turn out that, in the hour of revolt, those in charge of the party or union must choose to favor the revolt they did not want, all the while energetically exercising their criticism toward it.

The Spartacist revolt failed. The rebels did not manage to seize the symbols of power, not to mention its instruments. Once the revolt came to an end, it became evident that to a considerable extent it had served the very power it had attacked. Not only because in ten days of clashes the Berlin proletariat had lost a great number of its activists and almost the entirety of its leadership, not only because the organizational structures of the class had ceased to exist, but also because there had transpired that suspension of historical time and that release which are indispensable for the holders of power seeking to restore normal time, which they themselves had suspended during the four years of war.

Too long a wait risks becoming spasmodic; an action whose consequences are very distant in time risks eliciting that prolonged and dramatic wait from which subversions may stem. In such circumstances it is good policy for those who wield power to make sure that the excitation of the excessively prolonged wait is released in the desired moment and in the desired forms. Otherwise the accumulated tension may result in not a revolt, but a revolution. In other words, if a release is not deliberately provoked, the tension of the wait may be transformed into organized revolutionary energy. In that case, the direct clash will probably come much later—but it will be far more dangerous, because it will have been preceded by a long labor of consolidation of the revolutionary forces, threatening not only for the symbols of power but for the actual economic and social structures of the capitalist state.

For these reasons, the Spartacist revolt was useful to the very power against which it flung itself. For that power, the restoration of normal time was vital; and only through revolt and release could normal time be restored.

Normal time is not only a bourgeois concept but the outcome of a bourgeois manipulation of time. It guarantees bourgeois society a calm endurance. But it can also be deliberately suspended whenever it is convenient: the Masters of War always need a suspension of normal time in order to organize their cruel maneuvers. Mobilization plans precisely provide for a suspension of normal time and the emergence, as quickly as possible—in a matter of days—of a new experience of time, rendered necessary by the political and economic requirements of a war. For as long as the war will last, men will be placed in a different time. In other words, they will be forced to have a different experience of time. For soldiers, hours are measured on the basis of guard-duty shifts, the strictly predicted sequence of marches, the building of trenches and fortifications, the assaults on, the destruction of, specific targets. The mobile field kitchen (we are referring in particular to the time under discussion, that is, World War I ), with its regular appearances, is an important confirmation of changing rhythms. The provisioning of food, conditioned by military organization and the situation at the front line, fundamentally alters the day’s rhythm. One eats not when “the farmer returns tired to his shed,” or when the workers at the siren’s sound converge on the mess hall, but when the field kitchen appears with its steaming or cold cornucopia. And one eats not homemade food, predictably poor or rich, but the food that the circumstances—and therefore also the time—have allowed one to prepare. The time factor is even more grimly determining: one eats a greater quantity of food at the field kitchen if there have been more deaths in the meantime.

During war, usual time is not in force. For the soldiers, the alternation between light and dark only has a meaning for military operations; you move at night, halt during the day . . . It’s World War I, and the civilians who’ve stayed home do not suffer these constrictions as much as do city dwellers in World War II: the aerial offensive is at its beginnings. But during World War I even the inhabitants of the cities and the countryside, the civilians, experience a different time. Many bourgeois have in their homes a map on which they mark troop movements with colored flags or pins. They all know that whatever you do during the war counts only in function of the war. In the factories one works for war; at home one lives in accordance with the war’s rhythm. Most husbands, fathers, and brothers are at the front. Every real decision that matters for the future is postponed until after the war. In domestic hearths, time is measured as it is by the General Staff. And one of the most important modalities of the perception of time, waiting, is profoundly altered by the forced construction of things to be awaited, to which the General Staffs devote all their attention.

But when the war ends, this quadrennial wait must find an outlet. For four years one has waited for something. This “something” turned out not to be victory. So it is now necessary to give vent to the wait, and to change the experience of time. “Time of peace, holy night.” Alas, the indispensable holy night is not sufficiently fulfilled by the revolution of November 1918. Philipp Scheidemann, proclaiming the republic from the Berlin Reichstag, was the all too modest herald of an all too modest gospel. Neither the announcer nor the announcement is enough truly to change the experience of time. Something more is necessary: every true change in the experience of time is a ritual that demands human victims. Herod entered posterity as a fated executioner: the massacre of the innocents. But here we are no longer simply dealing with a cruel sacrifice: here—at the end of World War I—the experience of time can only change through a determinate cruel sacrifice. “Every choice, every action, meant being in agreement with time. . . .When it all ended, some of the real protagonists had left the stage forever.”

At the end of the demonstration in support of Eichhorn, groups of workers had occupied the headquarters and printing works of the social-democratic paper Vorwärts and of all the important newspapers of the capital. The following morning, January 5, the workers also occupied the state printing works, which printed banknotes. Reliable witness reports prove that the decision to occupy papers and printing works was facilitated by agents provocateurs from the Berlin Kommandatur.

The same day, the revolutionary committee distributed some weapons to the rebels and tried to occupy the War Ministry. Strictly of their own accord, groups of workers occupied the railway stations. While the battle waged almost incessantly in the streets, the revolutionary committee spent long hours in meetings: in the exhausting debates, the members of the committee reached the conclusion that it was necessary to negotiate with their adversary. Contemporaneously, in Düsseldorf and Bremen, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils seized power, while in the Rhineland counter-revolutionary troops were defeated in open battle. In Berlin, however, thousands of working-class fighters sacrificed themselves in the defense of strategic positions that—given how the fight had been led—could not be held for long (and Berlin represented from every point of view the hard core of the class struggle). In the night between January 8 and 9, the counter- revolutionary troops set their machine-gun fire on the editorial offices of the Rote Fahne on Wilhelmstrasse and attempted an assault, which was then postponed for (unjustified) fear of a trap. On the ninth, the offices were abandoned. The evening of January 10, while negotiations were still continuing between the social-democratic government and that part of the Independent Social Democratic Party that had opted for revolt, the Berlin Kommandatur, with a swift strike, managed to arrest a certain number of independent socialist and Communist leaders, among them Georg Ledebour and Ernst Meyer. Ledebour was in fact one of the delegates at the negotiations. At dawn on January 11, those negotiations ended, as vainly as they began. During the same hours, there began the heavy shelling of the offices of Vorwärts occupied by the workers. They repelled an initial attack by the troops; but after two more hours of gunfire the three hundred survivors were forced to accept an unconditional surrender. The troops demolished the headquarters of the Communist Party on Friedrichstrasse and arrested Leo Jogiches and Hugo Eberlein. That evening a meeting took place, in the presence of Karl Liebknecht, in the apartment close to the Halle Gate where Rosa Luxemburg had taken refuge after having left the editorial offices of the Rote Fahne on Wilhelmstrasse. Because this area was now at the center of the clashes, Liebknecht and Luxemburg went immediately to stay with a family in the working-class neighborhood of Neukölln, where counter-revolutionary troops did not yet dare enter in force. Meanwhile, all the parliamentarians (bar one) seized before the surrender of the workers occupying the Vorwärts had been killed. On January 13, a report—most probably false—led Liebknecht and Luxemburg to leave the fairly safe dwelling in Neukölln to stay with friends in Wilmersdorf. They had vehemently refused to seek shelter in Frankfurt: an exhortation they received from all quarters. In Wilmersdorf, Liebknecht and Luxemburg drafted some articles, with the aim of “drawing the balance sheet of what happened, to evaluate the events and their results in light of the great standard of history.” At nine in the evening on January 15, Liebknecht, Luxemburg, and Pieck were arrested in their hiding place and led to the Hotel Eden. A few hours later, the corpse of Karl Liebknecht was taken—as the body of an unknown person—to an emergency ward; Rosa Luxemburg’s was thrown from the Liechtenstein bridge into the Landwehr canal, from which it resurfaced five months later.The revolt continued to suspend historical time: during the spring of 1919 the legend made the rounds in the working-class neighborhoods of Berlin that Rosa Luxemburg had not been killed, that she had escaped the troops and would come back—when the hour sounded—once again at the head of the fighters, leading them to victory.

Translation by Alberto Toscano

Chapter 1 from Furio Jesi, Spartakus: Simbologia della rivolta ( Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2000).
Furio Jesi | The Suspension of Historical Time
dOcumenta (13), 2012
Published by Hatje Cantz Verlag

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