Nihilism as Strategy

(Nihilism) stands like an extreme that cannot be gotten beyond, and yet it is the only true path of going beyond; it is the principle of a new beginning.

Maurice Blanchot, The Limits of Experience: Nihilism

If we desire another world, what is necessary for us to do to achieve this end? Specifically what changes must we enact personally, socially, and as a movement?[1] Beyond a coming-to-power, what is the task of resolving the contradictions of not only the current methodological system of social organization, but the partial solutions offered by others who would also pursue social power? To what extent must these changes happen now or can they be part of the action-as-consequence?

Here is where nihilism can provide some new perspective. A definition of nihilism[2] could be the realization “that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility.” This exposes one of the greatest idealistic flaws of modern activism: The articulation of the specific world-to-be as a result of your actions does not guarantee that world’s creation.

It is the tradition of the materialist conception of history that allows for the fallacy of causality to pollute the spirit of today. If production and exchange are the basis of every social structure throughout history then we can limit ourselves to studying them to understand how any transition to another world may occur. Therefore an understanding of economic systems should suffice to understand the strategic opportunities for transition. Since the vast majority of economics is understanding the relationship of institutions (which are only accountable to the current power structure) to each other, such an analysis seems like trying to understand an internal combustion engine from the motion of a car.

Materialism has largely been seen as an incomplete conception of history. This is partially due to the power structures embedded in the formation of most institutions but also due to the moral forces that challenge materialism’s functionalist underpinnings. In the simple case, a benevolent God created the universe and has some vested interest in how things happen here. Therefore moral systems exist in the name of God’s interests, as stated in holy texts and by fallible interpreters. Since the dispersion of the Reformation and the secularization of the rise of Science, morality is usually defined in relation to politics. This has led to the moral component to Marx’s analysis and of the Left in general.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement. [The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels]

Moral value, or ‘good’, is defined by the specific cultural values of Europe, of a developed Christian worldview, and the developing beliefs in individualism, meritocracy, and mercantilism. These are still the hurdles that even the most starry-eyed of protesters trip over, sometime spectacularly.[3]

Historical evidence, if it is to believed, would actually demonstrate that the visions of “successful” social revolutionaries have shockingly little to do with the form of the new society they create. Take the French Revolution where the form of class society was to be changed. It did, from the three estates of church, nobility, and commoners to a powerful state, centralized bureaucracy, and burgeoning capitalist infrastructure. All it took was the Committee of Public Safety, a Reign of Terror, and a 15-year Total War effort that would transform warfare forever. For the Russian Revolution many differing tendencies aspired to revolutionary victory. Its eventual leaders called for “All power to the Soviets” and ended up settling for crushing their opposition and enacting the New Economic Policy.[4] The twentieth century has ended with a steep decline in not only successful social change but also a poverty of visionaries who are pursuing change at all.

Anarchism and nihilism share a common antecedent. Bakunin’s dictum “Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life. The desire for destruction is also a creative desire.” in 1842 sparked both movements. Nihilism’s cultural peak was in the 1860’s, although its activism continued almost to the early twentieth century. It is arguable that anarchists inherited ‘propaganda by the deed’ from the Russian nihilists. Nihilism’s theorists[5] continued to be cited as precursors to the revolutionary activity in Russia until they were ‘disappeared’ well into the Bolshevik regime.

What does nihilism have to offer beyond a mere avocation of destruction? The nihilist position does not allow for the comforts of this world. Not only is God dead to a nihilist, but also everything that has taken God’s place; idealism, consciousness, reason, progress, the masses, culture, etc. Without the comforts of this metaphysical ‘place’ a strategic nihilist is free to drift unfettered by the consequences of her actions. “A nihilist is a person who does not bow down to any authority, who does not accept any principle on faith, however much that principle may be revered”[6] Philosophically much has resulted from the nihilist ideas on value, aesthetics and practice. Most notably in Adorno’s conception of Negative Dialectics, a principle which refuses any kind of affirmation or positivity, a principle of thorough-going negativity. The nihilist tradition includes Adorno, Nietzsche, Bakunin, much of classic Russian literature, Dada, punk rock, Heidegger, existentialist, post-structuralist and post-modern thinkers, and much of anarchism.

What does this really mean on the modern stage? Strategic nihilism allows for the possibility that there is no future. The possibility of radical social transformation then becomes unhinged from the utopian aspirations of its proponents. Their ‘hope’ can clearly be shown to be disconnected from the social and material reality of both the society as-it-is and the potential society that-could-be. If the destruction of the current order must be achieved, for our own potential to be realized, for its own sake, for the children, it may be better to do it with open eyes than purposely blinded ones. A strategic nihilist understands that an ethical revolution does not create an ethical society. An ethical anarchist is not one concerned with non-utopian social transformation, only an idealized one. A strategic nihilist understands that the infrastructure of the modern world embeds its own logic and inhabitants and the nihilist is willing to toss it asunder anyway.

Vaneigem states in Revolution of Everyday Life, that “Juvenile delinquents are the legitimate heirs of Dada.” This speaks to a positive nihilism that may be a comforting way in which we can approach the troubling consequences imbedded within nihilism’s logic. Anarchists have generally accepted property destruction in their humanist vision of a ethical social change. Things matter less than people. Nihilism informs us that this dichotomy ties us to the world we must supercede, before we are capable of actually having social relationships with people and not things. Strategic nihilism provides us a solution to existentialism and liberalism. It argues for an active pose in this world and for the inviability of reformist solutions. When confronted with the horror of your existence, race towards the bleak consequences, not away. Deal with the moralism explicit in your stated irrelevance by identity politics, communism, and postmodernism with a sword in hand. Moralists should be spared no patience.

What if you are struggling in ‘the movement’? Nihilism can provide you a suite of tools. The first is deep skepticism. Every action, every meeting, is filled with politicians-in-waiting who are easy to discern, with their plastic smiles and fluency with ‘the process’. A strategic nihilism allows its practitioner to see these types for what they are; and the ability to do with them what is necessary by your analysis, and not theirs.

The second is a new eye towards history. Whereas before it may have been easy to get caught up in the details of the who’s, when’s and why’s of the Paris Commune, now it is easy to see the failure in the partiality without getting bogged down in the specific halfmeasures. Time devoted to arguing how many angels dance on the head of a pin is time away from the pursuit of anything else.

Finally, a strategic nihilist position allows for a range of motion heretofore not available. The ethical limitations of ‘doing the right thing’ have transformed movements for social change. From pacifists and ethicists who sanctimoniously wait for the club to fall or the strength of their convictions to shatter capitalism, to adherents of the Vietnam-era form of social protest, it is clear that the terrain allowed by morality is bleak and filled with quagmire. Armed struggle groups, who led non-existent masses toward their better world have shown similar failure. If these are not the models that frame your conception of change, you are free to make moves on a chessboard that no one else is playing on. You begin to write the rules that those in power are not prepared for. You can take angles, you can pace yourself, you can start dreaming big again, instead of just dreaming as large as the next demo, action, or war.