Locomotive of History


"Revolutions are the locomotive history," according to Marx in the 'Class Struggles in France.' Andrey Platonov, who knew and loved steam engines, was rather more literal minded about it. For him, locomotives were the locomotive of history, even if that meant the clapped-out goods-wagons trundling around the infant Soviet Union during the civil war. 

Platonov was that rare thing, a proletarian writer who composed modernist literature of the first order. He was mobilized during the civil war, he had a regional career in journalism. But the famine he observed made him quit writing to retrain as a hydrologist and engineer. When he returned to writing in the mid twenties, his work is marked by a rare practical sense of what was involved, and what could go wrong, in trying to build a new mode of production from the ground up.

From the late twenties on, he composed a series of masterpieces that read like a counter-history of the Soviet Union, written from a point of view that is not so much history from below as from below the below. His central characters are usually orphans who have even less than proletarians.

None of his major works were published in his life time. We are fortunate that New York Review Books Classics have put out a series of maginificent translations by Robert Chandler and his collaborators, including Foundation Pit, about Stalin's forced collectivisation of agriculture; Happy Moscow, about the high Stalinist culture of the capital in the late 30s, and Soul, which travels to the far west to look at Soviet power from the periphery.

Unfortunately, the book many would consider his masterpiece, Chevengur, is out of print. A older translation can be found here. Chandler and his colleagues have released some fragments of a new translation. Here below is a remarkable section in which the locomotive figures, perhaps as an allegory for the failure of the infrastructure of the infant Soviet state to live up to the airy language emamating from its superstructures. 

In Molecular Red, I devote a section to working through Platonov's history from below the below of the Soviet experiment in creating a new mode of production. It seems fairly clear that the current one within which we live can't last. The Anthropocene is a catalog of the reasons why the ever-expanding commodification of everything is on a collision course with planetary limits. And so I turned to Platonov, not just as a writer, but also as a theorist, who thought long and hard, and based on direct experience, about what it means to build a civilization from nothing. 

[From] Chevengur
Andrey Platonov

Novokhopersk had been occupied by the Cossacks while Aleksandr Dvanov was on his way there, but the detachment of Nekhvoraiko the Teacher had managed to push them out of the town. Novokhopersk was surrounded by dry ground, except for the approach from the river, which was all marshland; here the Cossacks had kept up only a feeble vigilance, assuming the marsh was impassable. But Teacher Nekhvoraiko had shod his horses with bast sandals, so they wouldn't drown, and taken the town during one desolate night, forcing the Cossacks out into the boggy valley, where they remained for a long time, since their horses were barefoot.

Dvanov called at the RevCom and talked to the people there. There were complaints about the lack of calico for Red Army whites, as a result of which the lice on the men were as thick as kasha—but the men were resolved to keep on fighting down to bare earth. 

Read the rest of the story here at Asymptote.
Another two extracts can be found here.