‘Science and industry denounced as metaphysics not merely romantic sexual love, but every kind of universal love, for reason displaces all love.’
Theodor Adorno and Marx Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment
‘She had suffered an acute attack of ‘love’- the name given to a disease of ancient times when sexual energy, which should be rationally distributed over one’s entire lifetime, is suddenly concentrated into one inflammation lasting a week, leading to absurd and incredible behaviour’
Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Bedbug
‘The discovery of energy as the quintessential element of all experience, both organic and inorganic, made society and nature virtually indistinguishable. Society was assimilated to an image of nature powered by protean energy, perpetually renewed, indestructible, and infinitely malleable.’
Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor, Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity
In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when scarcity and barter returned to Russia on a scale not seen since the early 1920s, a tyre factory in Volgograd reportedly paid its employees in dildos. This bizarre and thumpingly literal image (however vaguely) informed my thinking about this paper which revolves around themes of quantifiable, fungible, mechanised pleasure.
In the 1920s, before becoming renowned as the eccentric pedlar of orgone accumulators, Wilhelm Reich argued that Capitalism unhealthily restrains primal sexual instincts, that a genuine political revolution would shatter the constraints of bourgeois sexual morality, unleashing sexual energies through a kind of wild orgasmic release. He was rather scathing of the psychologists he met when he visited the Soviet Union in 1929, one of whom, Aron Zalkind, will be my focus here. In 1926, Zalkind published a strange treatise called ‘12 Commandments for the Sexual Revolution of the Proletariat’ in which he claimed that the capitalist free market is incompatible with what he calls ‘free love’.
But in stark contrast to Reich, Zalkind advocates sexual abstinence as the appropriate conduct for the revolutionary proletariat. Sexual relations during the period of the New Economic Policy (1921-1928) were, of course, being renegotiated for both ideological and practical reasons. As the heroine of Feodor Gladkóv’s 1925 novel Cement observes: ‘everything is broken up and changed and become confused. Somehow love will have to be arranged differently.’ But exactly how love was to be arranged was unclear.
Although the Soviet government legalised divorce and abortion, secularised marriage and de-criminalised homosexuality, and women’s position in the household and the workforce was being concretely transformed, Zalkind’s emphasis on sexual inhibition is characteristic of the ambivalence and anxieties concerning sex in the NEP period:
His Commandments were as follows:
1. Sexuality should not develop too early
2. Sexual abstinence before marriage
3. Renounces sex on the basis of pure physical attraction
4. Sex should only result from ‘deep and complex feeling’
5. Sex should be infrequent
6. Partners should not be changed too often
7. Relationships should be monogamous
8. Every sex act should be committed with the awareness that it might lead to the birth of a child
9. Sex partners should be selected on the basis of class
(Zalkind conceives of class in terms of biological purity, as a kind of ethnicity and he explicitly talks about eugenics which was not uncommon in the Soviet Union at this moment. He says: ‘Sexual attraction to class antagonism, to a morally disgusting, dishonest object is as perverse as the sexual desire of a human for a crocodile or an orangutan.’)
10. No jealousy
11. No sexual perversions
12. In the interests of the revolution, it is the duty of the proletariat to intervene in the sex lives of others
Zalkind relies on an economic conception of psychic sexual energy borrowed from Freud. Zalkind was a major figure in the psychoanalytic community in Moscow which blossomed briefly in the 1920s. The term ‘economy’ for Freud (at least in Zalkind’s rather reductive reading) is a quantitative category, implying a specific volume or magnitude of psychic sexual energy or libido, that Freud often describes as a kind of liquid that might be dammed up or leaked out in various ways. In the interest of self-preservation the fragile organism must protect itself from both external and internal excitations; the tension between pleasure and unpleasure must be regulated through sublimation, repression, cathexis etc. Or in Zalkind’s inelegant phrasing: ‘The body is stuffed with a certain amount of energy, a certain amount of internal stress and excitement, which erupts on the outside.’
In The Future of an Illusion – the last of Freud’s works to appear in Russian translation before the suppression of psychoanalysis in 1930 - Freud explicitly declares that his conclusions are not intended as a comment on the ‘great experiment in civilization’ occurring in Russia. But he is nonetheless dismissive of those who would claim that ‘a re-ordering of human relations’ might overcome the necessarily repressive character of society, stating that ‘every civilization must be built up on coercion and renunciation of instinct’ But, unlike Reich, Zalkind does not contradict Freud on this point. He may imagine repression and sublimation as conscious, voluntary and collective, but he still insists that Communism cannot be built without instinctual renunciation. The oft-repeated Soviet injunction to make sacrifices in the present in order to reap the eventual benefits of the bright Communist future corresponds to Freud’s reality principle, which he defines as the ‘temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure’.
This sentiment is expressed by the ascetic heroine of Alexandra Kollontai’s Vasilisa Malygina (published in English as Red Love): ‘What did she want out of life? Nothing but pleasure?… The revolution isn’t a holiday, she’d remind herself sternly, everyone has to make…sacrifices.’ Eric Naiman also discusses this at length in Sex in Public, quoting one committed Communist as saying the Communist should: ‘Starve with everybody else, walk in rags like everybody else, and feel the pain of others’ deprivation – that is how a Communist should be. That’s the only Communism that can be recognized as such, those are the only real Communists. A Communist should be first in line to participate in the foul, oppressively difficult present; only later will he be rewarded with
a shiny future.’
For Freud, giving the instincts free reign would be dangerous. Civilization is a by-product of repressed instincts and he is not particularly interested in making moral pronouncements on the outcome, stating that ‘it is often merely a matter of opinion when we declare that one stage of development is higher than another’. Zalkind’s argument is more explicitly value-laden. Zalkind’s quantification of energy allows for the commensurability of action - sex and work and class struggle can be reduced to the amount of physical energy they require to perform. And he uses this to make an ideological argument. Actions requiring an equal amount of energy, do not have an equal worth in relation to the building of Communism. He imagines a worker being insulted by his boss. This event, he claims, produces a specific volume of anger – which will inevitably break out. The worker, he says, might erupt and throw a plate at his wife. But instead, he says, the worker could channel the same anger into organiing a revolutionary demonstration or distributing agitationalpamphlets. For Zalkind, the unruly unconscious is not primitive in the Freudian sense; psychic chaos is a product of bourgeois society. Sex is thus morally rather than mortally dangerous; it is wasteful and frivolous rather than primal and destructive.
Zalkind is obsessed with the disorganisation and chaos of bourgeois sexuality with its ‘rampant leakage of energy wealth’ and explicitly equates financial and sexual excess. And this is as much an attack on NEP as it is on Western capitalism. For Zalkind, sex too much, too soon, too often or with too many people results in irrational ‘dis-organized’ feeling, diverting energy that could otherwise be used for building the new Communist society. Zalkind’s Twelve Commandments are thus an attempt to conceive of the maximum productive use of human energy possible.
Attuned to this infamously Taylor-obsessed period, he is thus focused on management, rationality, organisation and discipline. Zalkind was far from unique in this regard. Indeed, according to Richard Stites, some married couples did actually attempt to organize their domestic chores and sex lives on the basis of the Scientific Organisation of Labour. Lenin conceived of excessive sex as ‘wasted health and strength.’ Alexandra Kollontai similarly noted that promiscuity could ‘lower the resources of labour energy available to society.’
Just under half of the Soviet population in this period could not read at all, let alone read rarified debates about psychoanalytic theory, but these issues were not completely detached from concrete everyday concerns. Zalkind’s conception of energy has a physiological dimension that differentiates it from psychoanalysis. He insists that Freudian theory has a ‘materialist essence’, which he rather clumsily grafts onto a Pavlovian understanding of unconditioned reflexes.
After the Civil War, exhaustion was a major pre-occupation. As a result of malnutrition, impotence was widespread. Zalkind’s understanding of energy, however crude and absurd-sounding, should thus be understood in relation to the very real presence of scarcity and hunger. Furthermore, the specificities of the Soviet economy created a direct relation to food, and therefore to this physiological quantified definition of energy. During War Communism when money effectively became worthless, food literally functioned as a general equivalent - the first loan of the NEP period was levied in terms of rye and in villages transactions were accounted in poods of bread grain. Rationing continued throughout the NEP-period, rendering sustenance in neat commensurable tokens.
In Treatise on Money (1930), John Maynard Keynes describes the plight of the Muscovite cheese monger during the hyperinflation of war communism who, upon selling a pound of cheese, ‘ran off with the roubles as fast as his legs could carry him to the Central Market to replenish his stocks by changing them into cheese again, lest they lost their value before he got there.’ Cheese in this period was a more stable repository of value than money. This passage is cited by Lyotard in his strange and occasionally repugnant Libidinal Economy (which, published in France in 1974, was itself the product of a moment of economic crisis). He characterises this period of crisis as a vertiginous ‘time of flight’ in which transactions become slippery and uncertain, without continuity, lacking a stable unit of reference: ‘From one heap of notes to the other, there is no identity, not even simple quantitative difference. Every ‘exchange’ becomes an event, opens up a type of adventure, where death is the stake.’ But writers like Zalkind point to the continued zeal for attempting to find stable units of reference, to quantify and make things commensurable even in the face of such chaos. Cheese, which provides a certain amount of calories, has an unmediated relation to the economy of energy Zalkind is concerned with. There is here a much more literal material connection between monetary and libidinal economies than in Freudian psychoanalysis.
The acute privations of War Communism may have been eased by the introduction of the NEP mixed economy, but Zalkind’s treatise captures something of the ideological uneasiness that accompanied the re-emergence of private enterprise – luxury was condemned, hardship romanticised. Thinness was often related to ideological purity. Kollontai’s ‘thin and under-nourished’ Communist heroine Vasilisa Malygina drinks ‘nothing but water, eat[s] slops, dress[es] in rags’ and once infuriates her frivolous NEP-man lover by falling asleep during sex as she’s so tired from organising a worker’s commune. Conversely, sexual excess was often related to excessive eating, Vasilisa’s red lipped frippery-obsessed rival is notably voluptuous. The NEP-man or woman unable to accumulate Capital simply consumed. If pleasure is a quantity rather than a quality, its visual representation is fat.
These physiological conceptions of energy owe more to Marx than to Freud. For Marx, labour power is conceived of in physiological terms as ‘a definite quantity of human muscle, nerve [and] brain’. Marx describes labour capacity as the ‘aggregate of mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form’, which is abstracted from individual beings under Capital. But, as the NEP-era Soviet economist Isaak Rubin convincingly demonstrates, Marx’s quantified abstracted definition of physiological labour power is specific to capitalism. The equation of different forms of labour is only necessitated by commodity exchange. Value does not exist in relation to labour alone, but only in relation to both labour and exchange value. Abstraction is thus inextricably linked to alienation. Under Communism, Rubin claims, it should be possible for labour to retain its concrete qualitative difference.
Zalkind uses more explicitly monetary language than Freud tends to, but there is nothing explicitly Communist in these rather crude metaphors, which simply emphasise the importance of savings: ‘in this transitional pre-socialist period of heroic poverty, the working class must be extremely prudent. In the use of its energy it must be frugal, even miserly… for the sake of increasing the collective fighting fund.’ Zalkind thus fails to escape the alienation of abstraction identified by Rubin.
I want to make analogy here with a 1967 story called ‘The Adventures of the Rouble’, in which a Soviet rouble narrates a day in its life – it is first given to an industrious carpenter who uses it to buy carnations for his wife on International Women’s Day, but ends up being given as change by a cab driver to an American in whose wallet it meets some arrogant US dollars. They tell the incredulous rouble of their own previous adventures - they had been given to a pilot as payment for successfully bombing foreign cities, then squandered on drinks in a bar, before being found in the hands of a wrongfully accused black man killed in a police dragnet. Our little comrade the Soviet rouble - who takes such pride in his role helping people to acquire simple quotidian items like toothbrushes, ribbons, funeral wreaths, children’s books and buttons - is horrified. He thinks he has nothing in common with these brash green monsters. The rouble thinks of himself in terms of his qualities. But ultimately, even taking into consideration the peculiarities of the Soviet non-equivalent exchange system, there is nothing in the rouble’s form that prevents him from being used for activities just as horrifying as those described by the American dollar.
Zalkind makes a similar assumption to the rouble. But conceiving of revolutionaries as having an abstracted aggregate of capabilities, risks reducing both revolutionary activity and sex (assuming the two are mutually exclusive) to a purely logical universal without any real qualities. What are these revolutionaries supposed to be fighting for exactly? Jacques Derrida’s remarks about Freud’s economic conception of pleasure are apposite here. Freud, he says, implicitly supposes that we know what pleasure is but fails to actually tell us anything about it – ‘Nothing is said of the qualitative experience of pleasure itself. What is it? What does it consist of? … The definition of the pleasure principle is mute about pleasure, about its essence and quality. Guided by the economic point of view, this definition concerns only quantitative relations.’