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Acid Communism; Acid Renaissance

By Paul Watson on .

Bacchanalia Beneath the Wind Turbines

I’m a visual artist, so this brief piece about Mark Fisher’s draft introduction to his planned book Acid Communism (sadly never to be realised due to his premature death) examines the concept from an artist’s perspective. As an immediate warning to the curious, I want to make clear that I have no background in academia, philosophy, or political science: if you want that sort of interpretation then it’s probably best to look at Matt Colquhoun’s continuing work on this subject, which is well worth reading. However a large part of Fisher’s draft introduction concerns itself with art and culture, so I think it’s fair to examine it from (albeit informally) an artist’s perspective, especially since it has been some influence on my thinking behind my current Acid Renaissance series of artwork.

Defining the term Acid Communism seems to be difficult enough - the draft introduction gives us hints, but if you could entirely understand a concept from a rough draft of an introduction then books would be a lot thinner. For me, the key to a very brief definition is to look at what Fisher notes in the first two paragraphs (and the opening quotation from Herbert Marcuse) that capital aims to prevent:

The libertarian communism mentioned here is, of course, nothing like the authoritarian communism of the USSR in the 20th Century. I could probably try to work out the difference between libertarian communism and social anarchism, but it would require 101 hair-splitting citations from very dry and dusty tomes, and this is an art blog so I’m using (excuse the pun) broad brushstrokes and saying that they’re essentially the same thing, just arrived at from two slightly different directions. Anyway, more about art and culture…

A particularly interesting remark by Fisher is that:

The exorcising of the “spectre of a world which could be free” was a cultural as well as a narrowly political question. For this spectre, and the possibility of a world beyond toil, was raised most potently in culture — even, or perhaps especially, in culture which didn’t necessarily think of itself as politically-orientated.

Firstly this feels like hauntology, but one step further removed: a spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of the spectre of Marxism.

Secondly, this ties into some ideas I was exploring a few years ago that even mainstream children’s TV, up until the 1980s, imagined a variety of radical future societies for England.

That train of thought did end up with me crowd-imagining a Collective Imagined Future England via Twitter, which was fun and very interesting, and some of it did indeed feed into my Acid Renaissance series of artwork. This, I think, is the type of fun that is difficult for “The Serious Left” to engage with. Fisher goes further in the draft introduction:

In fact … the failure of the left after the Sixties had much to do with its repudiation of, or refusal to engage with, the dreamings that the counterculture unleashed.

Despite always considering myself to be politically very much on the left, I’ve repeatedly experienced this refusal from The Serious Left to engage with anything that is not … a particularly joyless form of socialism. Back in the very late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was an art student, it was easy to identify the Serious Left: they dressed in a uniform of donkey jackets, blue jeans, and Doc Marten shoes.

I don’t pretend that I wore anything less of a subcultural uniform at the time (and arguably still do, albeit toned down to adjust for my advancing years), except it was all black from pointed boots to crimped hair, but somehow it meant (in the eyes of the Serious Left) that I couldn’t possibly be serious about my politics. In fact I was always very serious about my leftwing politics (I used to describe myself as a socialist, these days I’m more likely to use the term social anarchist).

It’s a curious inversion of the usual stereotype that goths were somehow too frivolously joyful to be serious! Of course, for those in the know, 1980s goth in the UK and Europe was a gloriously joyful subculture, with a knowing degree of ridiculousness, but also a fairly solid grounding in leftwing politics. I’m not sure how things were in the US, and from the mid-90s in the UK/Europe the whole goth thing evolved into something different from the one I had known, so it may have changed politically as well.

However, going back to Fisher’s comment, I think the problem was that the left (after the 1960s) didn’t trust counterculture. It perhaps saw counterculture as a potential recruiting ground, but the recruits were to be taken out of counterculture and into The Serious Left: it would never engage with counterculture as allies or comrades because I think that sort of creativity was seen as dangerously unconstrained by doctrine.

Fisher returns to art later in the introduction:

Art was a positive alienation, a “rational negation” of the existing order of things… In [Marcuse’s Frankfurt School predecessor, Theodore] Adorno’s work … we are invited to endlessly examine the wounds of a damaged life under capital; the idea of a world beyond capital is despatched into a utopian beyond. Art only marks our distance from this utopia. By contrast, Marcuse vividly evokes, as an immediate prospect, a world totally transformed.

And again, I think this ties in with the lack of engagement between the left and countercultural creative dreamings (as opposed to grimy social realism, which seemed to be acceptable).

If I was being cynical I’d say that grimy social realism served the Serious Left by (supposedly) ‘galvanising the proletariat’ to join the struggle (but not to have any real input into the nature of the post-revolutionary society), whereas if we all actually started dreaming of what a potential future might look like then that future might stray ever-so-slightly from what had been ordained by orthodoxy. This remark is not in any way a rejection of left-wing politics, but rather a desire for an inclusive, collective creation of a better future rather than following a script that is based on writings from over a century ago.

Fisher goes on to further define his concept:

Acid Communism is the name I have given to [the spectre of a world which could be free] … It points to something that, at one point, seemed inevitable, but which now appears impossible: the convergence of class consciousness, socialist-feminist consciousness-raising and psychedelic consciousness, the fusion of social movements with a communist project, an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life.

One phrase here - “psychedelic consciousness” - probably needs a bit more delving into (it is expanded on within the introduction). Further into the draft introduction Fisher states:

The crucial defining feature of the psychedelic is the question of consciousness, and its relationship to what is experienced as reality. If the very fundamentals of our experience, such as our sense of space and time, can be altered, does that not mean that the categories by which we live are plastic, mutable?

So this is not just dreaming of a better society, but the creative freedom to imagine beyond what is usually defined as possible.