Alain Badiou will situate his discourse on Pier Paolo Pasolini between destruction and subtraction, never forgetting that it is negation that works within them both. Speaking of that Poet, Marxist and full of the innocence of the sacred, saying,
His question was: is the revolutionary becoming of History, the political negativity, a destruction of the tragic beauty of the Greek myths and of the peaceful promise of Christianity? Or do we have to speak of a subtraction, whereby an affirmative reconciliation of beauty and peace becomes possible in a new egalitarian world?1
Isn’t this our question as well? When many would bury this ancient past as dead and to be forgotten in a world where the drift of things has shifted from the monocular vision of Western Civilization to a complex and international realm of late capitalism and the lost and poverty stricken Third World what should be done? Ours is a time when the post-colonial and multicultural identity politics has brought more divisiveness than recognition, more war and strife, racial tensions, and embittered battalions of the disaffected into a world where such things as beauty and peace seem a dream of ancient utopian failures rather than the real of our political moment. Is an egalitarian vision still viable, or is it an impossible dream at our late hour?
In his poem Discovering Marx Pasolini quotes Maxim Gorky in his epigraph: “I know that intellectuals in their youth feel a truly physical attraction towards the people and believe this is love. But it is not love: it is a mechanical attraction to the mass.” I’ve not been able to discover this saying in the copies of Gorky at my disposal, but what is more interesting is this notion of a “mechanical attraction to the mass”. And, why would Pasolini, a avowed Marxist, use this as an epigraph?
My heresies aside what has always attracted me to Marx and Engels is not some mechanistic attraction to the masses in their writings, but the deep and abiding passion they’ve shown throughout their lives and writings as intellectuals with aligning themselves with the oppressed, the workers who in their era were enslaved in conditions of labor that demeaned them, made them ill, and kept them in a state of utter dejection and apathy. Lives of the oppressed are bound to degradation, defiance, and resentment where life is nothing more than one long struggle against the night. Nothing romantic about this rather if one reads Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England as I did in my youth one gains an insight into this world of the oppressed and oppression. That Engels was a disaffected intellectual, a member of that same middle-class he so hated, is beside the point. He was a man with his eyes wide open that saw human suffering around him in the streets where people lived and died, enslaved to a impersonal profit system that sought not their well-being but only the use-value they offered for surplus profit.
Engels was not interested in arm-chair philosophy, the abstract knowledge of scholars, but wanted to see with his own eyes the truth of peoples every-day lives lived in degradation and poverty, and at the mercy of a system of Church and State that treated them not as humans with dignity and rights, but as means to the end of profit. People had become as the proverbial saying has it “cogs in the machine” mere parts of a mechanistic system of profit, nothing more. Working people lose their dignity when they are forced into subservience and obedience to a system that treats them as worthless, as menial and under-valued denizens of the market, as less than zero on the scale of social equality. As if being born poor were natural, rather than an economic degradation to be countered and overcome. Here is Engels as his best:
from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Collected Poems
Pier Paolo Pasolini from Collected Poems