The Destructive Urge
By Mario Cutajar
Demystification can be construed as a terrorist practice.
The desire to reduce illusions to ashes proceeds from both a hatred
of illusion and the sheer aesthetic joy of witnessing the conflagration.
For the hatred for the bourgeois is aesthetic as well as moral.
The bourgeois is a pig not just because he exploits but even more
so because he is bourgeois, a conceited bastard who refuses to recognize
the utter contingency of his existence and social position, a man
who believes he is as neccessary to the universe as the law of conservation
"The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into
eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms, springing
from your present mode of production and form of property - historical
relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production
- this misconception you share with every ruling class that has
preceded you." Marx's statement is meant to be more than a
philosophical observation. It is at the same time a declaration
of war since the bourgeois is only proved to be conceited if he
is actually made to disappear. Having escaped the anguish of his
freedom by pretending to be a manifestation of the eternal he is
reintroduced to his anguish through the naked strength of the revolutionary
Revolt thus begins as the affirmation of contingency, as an urge
to test things by trying to break them. All we know in the beginning
is that the world of the bourgeois is a fabrication. For our part
we yearn for the concrete and the concrete is what doesn't burn,
the ashes left after the fire. Thus Marxism begins as the "ruthless
criticism of everything existing." The spirit of revolt makes
its first appearance as nihilism.
Nihilism is the beginning. It is therefore infantile in both senses
of the word: it is both an unavoidable first step and inadequate
as a permanent relation to the world. We have as yet only an automatic
reaction to a vague yearning for the real. Between yearning and
gratification there is not rational mediation. The yearning itself
is left unquestioned, shielded from the "ruthless criticism"
that it subjects everything else to.
At some point this blind search of the real must become aware of
its blindness. Childhood stands outside itself and recognizes its
inadequacy. Prolonged beyond this point nihilism, like childhood,
becomes grotesque, its original youthfulness turned into a pathethic
mimicry of itself.
"Thus nihilism must either degenerate
or else mature into a genuinely revolutionary attitude."
Thus nihilism must either degenerate or else mature into a genuinely
revolutionary attitude. Philosophy proceeds in the same way: the
process of doubt must at some point become a process of discovery.
The skepticism which liberates us from our illusions must give way
to the more arduous but fruitful investigation of experience. Else
it becomes an excuse for new illusions. In a similar fashion nihilism
by refusing to situate the urge to destroy within a context of conflicting
possibles avoids the risk of failure that must attend any project
undertaken in the real world. In a backhanded way it eliminates
the contingency it pretends to celebrate.
The revolutionary attitude on the other hand demands that the urge
to destroy be subsumed within the project of creation. Bakunin's
equation of the two (the urge to destroy is a creative urge) is
simply bad faith; an attempt to avoid the dirty task of transforming
one into the other. The urge to destroy has to become the urge to
create and the urge to create has to become a conscious project.
An urge becomes a project when it takes cognizance of the resistance
the world offers to it and attempts to define its goal as the object
and conclusion of a calculated plan. The plan is never final, of
course, but the attitude of planning is always there: the world
is viewed as a heterogenous mixture of obstacles and tools, allies
and enemies. The plan is never final, because one's actions change
the world constantly necessitating a fresh estimation of probabilities
with every step. The project contains within it the possibility
of its failure; that is why it is a project, a leap towards an object.
Planning does not remove this possibility, it merely attempts to
reduce it starting first and foremost with the act of planning itself
which translates the undifferentiated resistance of the world into
an obstacle and thus into a lack of tools. By virtue of this simple
operation the resistance offered by the world becomes overcomable
since the obstacle at least defines the tools for its overcoming.
These may not be available but at least the task of fashioning them
or discovering them (although stone is both a stone and a potential
hammer head) is a practical one.
The creative attitude may thus be defined as an instrumentalizing
approach to the world. This is not the same thing as the technocratic
approach. Creation demands recognition of the free consciousness
behind the project. Which project to undertake and what means to
use in order to objectify it remain forever open questions. By contrast
the technocrat sees the project as a given, something which in a
sense already exists since it does not originate in any human currently
living but rather something imposed by the future on the present.
Production has to be doubled, socialism has to be "built":
the plan rules.Within the creative project, however, the plan itself
always remains an instrument, the unification of all other instruments.
Paradoxically by denying the human authorship of the plan, its arbitrariness,
technocratic reason dooms itself to irrationality, to a permanent
discrepancy between the plan and reality. Instruments only exist
in the presence of an instrument-maker, a being who can make of
himself an instrument but is always more than just an instrument,
a free consciousness. Once this being is obliterated. instruments
return to their inert state, the hammer-head resumes its existence
as a stone. Likewise the technocratic plan fails the moment it ceases
to be an instrument and starts to rule. Production is doubled and
tripled but socialism is never built.
"Instruments only exist in the presence
of an instrument-maker, a being who can make of himself an instrument
but is always more than just an instrument, a free consciousness."
The creative attitude takes the instrumentalizing of the world
to the limit and regards itself as another instrument. Men make
history but they make under circumstances that existed prior to
their being in the world. The recognition of both circumstances
and one's ability to change them is the meaning of instruments.
They are, if you like, the ever-renewable traces of the meeting
between subject and object.
Within this context nihilism emerges as the other side of the technocratic
approach. Ultimately both deny the existence of an instrument maker.
The technocrat does it by giving instruments autonomy. Nihilism
achieves the same thing by denying the very existence of instruments.
We started by giving nihilism the status of a genuine need. We
recognized in it the unavoidable beginning, the first attempt at
appropriating reality. These first trashings about are not without
result. The resistance they meet and against which they are directed
elucidates the structure of reality while at the same time illuminating
the as yet uninterrogated urge to destroy. The analogy with childhood
provides further insights into this process. Childhood reveals enough
of the world to force its own transcendence, the "loss of innocence".
But this loss can be experienced or adapted to in two ways. What
one has learnt can be used to postpone adulthood indefinitely or
it may form the basis for maturity. In each case the break with
childhood is unavoidable but how it is lived, as infantilism or
maturity, is a choice.
Nihilism proceeds in this manner. Its yearning for the real is
fulfilled. The world is revealed and with it the fact of its inhabitation.
Reality, it turns out, is social. One's urge to destroy contradicts
or reinforces the urge of others. But this discovery of the projects
of others immediately deflates one's own urge. The urge to destroy
so far accepted as a given is revealed as a choice. The urge to
demystify must itself be demystified. In the processing of exposing
others to their own contingency one learns the contingency of oneself.
The primacy of the urge even if the urge is to destroy is revealed
as an escape from contingency, a denial of one's freedom. Or to
put it more simply, to be "ruled" by any passion is no
more than an attempt to escape the necessity of choosing which particular
passion to be "ruled" by.
Hatred for the bourgeoisie is no more "natural" or inevitable
than is the existence of the class one hates. Nothing can "rule"
my life, not even the revulsion I feel for those who in practice
do run my life. This revulsion too is my creation as we discover
in those moments of self-doubt when we feel we are taking things
"too seriously". We look to our feelings to take over
the automatic guidance of our lives only to discover that the moment
these feelings are charged with this responsibility they collapse
under its weight. I choose to be a revolutionary and to let my hatred
for the bourgeoisie sustain me but there come days when my hate
seems exhausted, when I can contemplate not being a revolutionary
without the slightest feeling of guilt. In such moments I conjure
to myself all the things that usually make me angry. I say to myself
"Remember imperialism, remember your own frustrations, recall
the smug faces of the pigs and the nauseating toadying of the press."
My rage creeps back and once more I'm a revolutionary "as I
cannot help but be". I evade absurdity. Christians are deeply
aware of this process. They recognize that religious fervour, the
"losing of oneself in God", is an exotic experience that
in everyday life one has to rely on faith, a conscious commitment.
The same can be said of long-time lovers. Indeed I have the same
experience as I write this article: the frenzy that moves me to
write sometimes fails me and I have to continue in an arduous and
deliberate manner until the next bout. Absurdity or anguish are
thus the proof of freedom.
Thus nihilism, which starts as the affirmation of freedom, must
in order to maintain this affirmation go beyond itself. The passion
that drives me to reject the obscene self-deception of the bourgeois
otherwise becomes my own self-deception, my own way of establishing
a "place in life" as secure and eternal as that of the
If I overcome nihilism I face the difficult incompletable task
of constructing a revolutionary project. I subject myself to the
constant uncertainty that goes with any project. Each step of the
way it is necessary to make choices that are in themselves never
necessary. How is capitalism fought? Should I join a party? If so
which one? If not what do I do? Do I start my own party or do I
act on my own? How can I be most effective on my own? These questions
are necessary, I cannot avoid asking them. But each particular answer
is never the necessary answer. The choice not to join a party is
never final as is any other choice.
But I can also choose to deny the necessity of choosing. This is
bad faith, a deliberate confusion of one necessity with another.
Because it is true that each particular choice is not necessary
but choice itself is not a choice. In bad faith I claim for myself
a freedom I actually do not have - the freedom not to be free -so
as to better suppress the freedom I do have.
This is what it means to make nihilism a profession. The damnation
of others becomes my own salvation, my own way out of freedom. I
jeer at the bourgeois, the bureaucrat and the Leninist even as I
make of my jeering a safe occupation. I attack others for stifling
freedom while I stifle it in myself.
Earlier we noted that nihilism's bad faith lies in its emphasis
on the "urge". In other words nihilism chooses to limit
itself to an emotion thus avoiding coming to grips with the world.
It negates while at the same time refusing to transcend thus exposing
its negation as a false one. It attacks capitalism but refuses to
draw up a program for its destruction preferring instead to act
from a distance, for the "outside".
This is typical of emotional states in general, what Sartre characterized
as "magical" reactions to the practical problems of everyday
In the magical states one escapes the tensions that characterize
the world of everyday life. The endless search for and comparison
of possibilities is avoided through the reduction of the world to
a non-utilizable whole. For example: I am late for an appointment.
There is nothing I can do about it because the time I reach my destination
at this point depends entirely on the speed of the subway train
and the distance that has to be covered, a mathematical relation.
At each station it is possible for me to check the time. But I avoid
doing so since I find looking at the clocks unbearable. I act as
if not looking at the clocks will somehow make time irrelevant to
my situation and prevent me from being late. My not looking is thus
a magical gesture, a symbolic destruction of the complex world in
which time exists and in which I am late. For this I substitute
a world which in Sartre' words "requires nothing of me"
since it is a world devoid of any instruments. My subsequent ability
to act as if time did not exist, an ability I do not "really"
have, compensates for an ability I did have but which I chose to
forego, namely, the ability to start my journey earlier and be on
time. Had I started out early time and the speed of the train would
have been devices in my favour, guarantees of my punctuality. As
it is they have became insurmountable obstacles.
In Sartre's words:
"All ways are barred and nevertheless we must act. So then
we try to change the world; that is to live it as though relations
between things and their potentialities were not covered by deterministic
processes but by magic."
Emotion is consequently a "transformation of the world"
but it is a useless transformation since it is achieved through
a transformation of the perceiver.
"To put it more simply, since the seizure of one object is
impossible, or sets up an unbearable tension, the consciousness
seizes it or tries to seize it otherwise; that is it tries to transform
itself in order to transform its object."
The clocks, and time in general, are unaffected by my refusal to
consider them even though this refusal creates for me a more habitable
world. "Such are the limitations of my magical power over the
world: I can suppress as object of consciousness, but only by suppressing
Clearly emotions are only one step away from bad faith. They are
always escapes, "low-energy" states we fall into when
our resources -- perceived or otherwise -- are not adequate to overcame
obstacles in our paths. Under such conditions we find it convenient
to forget both the "real" determinism of the world and
our equally real freedom to adapt to it, i.e. we forget the orderliness
on which we normally rely to achieve our ends. As the example illustrated
whether the world's determinism hinders or makes possible our freedom
depends on our choices. In the emotional/magical state, however,
I claim a freedom I do not possess, an exemption from the rules
to which I am not entitled. Determinist as it is the material world
still allows choices. In this sense I am free: how I submit to the
operating pattern of the world in general and subway trains in particular
depends entirely on me; it is my freedom. But in an emotional state
I claim a superior freedom: that of actually defining the choices
available. This freedom is a fiction. Only a God could have it.
But it serves to evade the real freedom and responsibility I really
This distinction between two sorts of freedom is vital because
it explains why it is possible to escape from freedom in the name
of freedom. Actual freedom demands that one interiorize the rules.
These rules are at once the resistance to one's projects and the
condition for actualizing our freedom. The lawfulness ("resistance")
of matter is what makes flight possible but which at the same time
makes it require effort. This contact with the determinism of matter
is what we refer to when we use the expression "to dirty one's
Conversely "purity" is abstention from choice, an emotional
belief in the power of one's intentions. This is the purity of nihilism.
Howevver, nihilism goes further than an implicit negation of the
utilizable world. The negation is made into a system. Further: the
urge to destroy is already an act of destruction the moment the
urge is given primacy. Nihilism is consequently a circular system.
The attitude is its own end. To be a nihilist is already to have
Nihilism directs its negation at the world but is concerned with
the negation of the consciousness from which it emanates. One transforms
oneself in order to transform the object: the emotional destruction
of the world is the destruction of oneself. For all its violence
nihilism leaves the world untouched.
In Marxist terminology nihilism is an ideology. But we are dealing
with an ideology that is not autonomous but which inhabits other
currents, a particular way of adapting to existing reality that
actually perpetuates that reality. We should speak, in fact, of
alienation. Nihilism represents the separation of emotion from its
source and the subsequent domination of the latter by the former.
The differences between this form of alienation and religious alienation
are less important than the similarities. Religion arises out of
the necessity to deny the misery of this world. Adaptation in the
case of religion consists of transcendance toward God. The world
as such is negated: its only a preparation for what is to come,
a not quite real manifestation of a genuine and infinite reality.
Nihilism simply dispenses with the transcendence. Or rather it is
unable to carry out the transcendance after the negation. Having
liquidated reality nihilism stands hypnotized by its own gesture.
The demystification of God is completed only to be replaced by a
new form of alienation. The revolt against all Gods turns on itself
and makes revolt as such the object of worship. It is not accidental
that the devel is portrayed in Goethe's Faust as spirit of negation.
The spirit I, that endlessly denies. And rightly too; for all that
comes to birth is fit for overthrow, as nothing worth; Wherefore
the world were better sterilized;
Satanism too is an escape, an attempt, paradoxical as it may be,
at personal salvation. It is far more heroic than religion of course.
If nothing else destruction is a form of self-assertion while religion
is a pathetic debasement. When one's back starts to brush against
the cold, hard wall the choice is between falling on one's knees
or striking at everything within reach. A feeling of intense exhiliration
must accompany the latter: one has lost everything and this loss
has been turned to advantage. Amidst the sordidness of this world,
outside the unending cycle of manipulation, there is a moment of
purity. Seule la revolte est pur, Simone Beauvoir once said. The
act of rebellion guarantees that the rebel has nothing to lose,
not because he does not possess anything, but because the act of
rebellion severs him from whatever he possesses. Sainthood and nihilism
necessarily intersect for in the end both advocate the purity of
sterility. But as we noted earlier this state of purity doesn't
last long. It cannot because it is an unstable state, like the highpoint
of a jump. Gravity never relinquishes its hold; matter is an adversity
that only a material force can overcome. The devil is only clean
in that short moment in which he defies God. After that he becomes
Mephistepholes the professional cynic who actually requires God
to maintain his identity. As Goetz discovers in Sartre's The Devil
and the Good Lord both absolutes are impossible. "There is
no difference between the Devil and the Lord personally -- I choose
What does it mean to choose man? It means accepting the necessity
of dirtying one's hands. It means making compromises between the
Devil and the Lord so as to be better able to beat both of them.
In short humanism demands that nothing be sacred not revolt and
not even man. Nihilism has to be reduced to a device. Like violence
it has to be denied any intrinsic value, negative or positive. Indeed
nothing has value but only received it from human action. Consequently
what appears to be sordid - the manouverings, the manipulations,
the compromises - only this has any value. The rest is meaningless.
Nihilism has to lose its virginity and become humanism.That is
what it comes down to.This transcendence, however, can never be
complete. It has to be renewed constantly. Degeneration is a constant
threat; hence the lapses of the revolutionary movement into adventurism.
As Sartre has pointed out the magical side of the world is an everpresent
existential structure. It only takes a slight "nudge",
an obstacle, to precipitate consciousness into an emotional relation
with the world. Emotions are in fact a component of our perceptual
system. They help us detect difficulties, as when anger, for example,
notifies me of the presence of a barrier to my plans. The question
is whether one gives way to a fit, the infantile reaction, or whether
the notice of difficulty serves to put in motion a plan for its
Similarly the critique of nihilism seeks not to eradicate the phenomenon
but rather to integrate it within a larger project.
Marx provides a good example of this process of integration. Thus
in his early writings the purpose is almost entirely destructive.
"Criticism aims not to refute but to destroy," he says.
It is "a hand-to-hand fight, and in such a fight it is of no
interest to know whether the adversary is of the same rank, noble
or interesting -- all that matters is to strike him."
Soon, however, he has to go beyond criticise and into politics.
For in the end "the arm of ciritcism cannot replace the criticism
of arms. Material force can only be overthrown by material force."
It is necessary to procure instruments ("arms") to change
criticism into a plan of action."Revolutions need a massive
element, a material basis." Intentions left to themselves are
useless. They must become strategy. Or as Marx announces in the
lst Thesis on Feuerbach subject and object must unite.
By the time the Communist Manifesto is written the initial nihilism
has become a subterranean current. Airy "criticism" has
become "class struggle". The result is overpowering. Perhaps
the earlier writings are more "profound" but they are
one-sided, the speculations of a radical philosopher. In the Manifesto
we are listening to a mature revolutionary. The violence is no longer
verbal, it is a "material force". Ruthless criticism has
been translated into a systematic plan for the destruction of capitalism.
The earlier rage has not disappeared; the Manifesto is written with
a venomous pen. But rage is not given autonomy for in the end the
force of the manifesto stems from its confidence. It is this which
"haunts" the bourgeois, his summary reduction to a historical
moment. Personal hatred for the bourgeois animates an impersonal
attack on his class. This synthesis is the sign of maturity since
it demonstrates a willingness, to plunge into the "thick"
of things, a recognition as well as acceptance of the demands of
matter. There is no illusion that human freedom can ever mean freedom
from these demands. On the contrary human freedom begins with their
recognition, hence the materialist conception of history.
Marxism thus appears on the scene as the coming to age of the revolutionary
idea. But this hard-won maturity is not a permanent achievement.
For the transcendance of nihilism occurs in the actual process of
revolutionary action. It is consequently something that must ever
be renewed. Regression to infantilism is always possible. It is
in fact a possibility that permanently haunts the revolutionary
project, a possibility that of necessity becomes more tempting than
ever when revolution seems cut off from the present by insuperable
This is the secret of Marxism: the theory is as open as the history
it intervenes in, as unfinished as the subjects who undertakes to
realize it. The dialectic is the life of the subject himself. It
exists in the world only through the existence and contingency of
the subject. This contingency of the subject -- the utter lack of
necessity for his existence and its meaning - this radical freedom
is what denies any transcendance, any choice, the permanency it
might otherwise have. That first thesis on Feurbach is both the
beginning and the end of Marxism: the transcendance of the subjective/objective
duality is a permanent task, life itself. It has taken Marxism a
hundred years to rediscover this truth. This rediscovery may appear
to some as a "crisis" of Marxism or as Lichtheim bemoans
in Marxism the dissolution of the unity of theory and practice.
But in fact this "unity" is animated entirely by those
who live it. Outside of this relation it disappears, making it futile
to look for it even inside the writings of Marx. Marxism's greatest
discovery is in fact that it cannot prescribe any apodictic "science"
of revolution, any fail-safe program. On the contrary what it provides
is a new question, a new responsibility to make a choice. It allows
to see the world behind the mystifications that are set up to obscure
it. But behind the mystified world we find a world that is infinitely
more complex in comparison because it is made up entirely of our
choices. Thus Marxism leads us along the tortuous path of its development
only to leave us with a burden. The theory of demystification is
itself demystified. But this is not death. It is the further maturing
of a mature theory. It is one more step away from the nihilist origin.
In this period of rediscovery, however, the process is easily mistaken
for a crisis. This is understandable. Marxism became a guide instead
of a question because its practitioners could not accept the burden
it would otherwise have put on them. The task Marx set himself and
his followers was gargantuan. It was easier therefore to make what
was in fact a task, a theory requiring realization into the beacon
that illuminated the path to victory. Today, therefore, when we
are starting to see Marxism as a problem - as it has always been
-- it is tempting to see it as a failure. This is the same temptation
as existed at the beginning, the same relinquishing of responsibility.
There will never be a theory that will tell us what to do. The
best theory will only help us narrow the choices but choices will
always remain the chasm between us what we make of ourselves. But
this is not a justification of nihilism. For as we observed earlier
nihilism evades freedom and must consequently always be considered
Published in The
Red Menace Number 5, Summer 1980.
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