Article Image

Note: spoilers for s01e04

The Americans, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a TV show that started in 2013, following the lives of two Soviet sleeper agentsi in the early 1980s, a husband and wife team who have been operating in the US since 1963. The show was inspired by the uncovering and repatriation of a Russian sleeper spy ring in the US in 2010. The show makes a lot of use of actual political and strategic events that took place in the early 1980s, notably the Star Wars defense programme. In season 1, episode 4, Hinkley’s assassination attempt on Reagan take place, throwing the sleepers, their handlers in the Soviet embassy, and the FBI counter-espionage agents, into a tizzy. It becomes clear that the Soviets, hearing a statement by Secretary of State Alexander Haig that he was “in control here” (in the White House), assumed that the assassination attempt was part of an attempted coup, something the lead FBI agent finds ridiculous. He says to the mole he has planted in the Soviet embassy that that’s not how it works in the US.

Razmig Keucheyan, in his survey of “critical theory”, argues that different strands of Marxism are marked by different views positions on the question of power. Prior to Foucault’s diffuse model of power, two of the most influential understandings of power come from Lenin and Gramsci. For Lenin, the conquest of state power was the fundmental moment in the proletarian revolution; the imposition of the dictatorship of the proletariat would both inaugurate the social revolution, and the process of the “withering away” of the state (cf. The State and Revolution, 1918). Keucheyan ascribes this focus on the capture of state power to the fact that autocratic Russia had an extremely large and powerful state and an almost non-existent civil society.

In Western Europe, on the other hand, civil society was much more robust. In the prison notebooks, Gramsci wrote that

In Russia the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relation between State and civil society, and when the State trembled, a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. (Quoted in Keucheyan, p. 40).

Keucheyan adds that this position “presupposes that in the West a ‘war of movement’ is insufficient on its own for the overthrow of the socio-political order”. (40). It is precisely this misunderstanding of the Soviet view of (state) power and the American that lies at the heart of the episode.

At one point, Philip, the sleeper-husband, argues that the positive news coming out of the White House (that Reagan was alive and likely to survive) should be distrusted given that when the last two Soviet leaders died (presumably Andropov and Chernenko), news of their deaths was suppressed for several days. This indicates a solid understanding on the part of the writers of this difference between Soviet and American political life.

However, it raises the question of exactly how true this understanding of Soviet politics and civil life actually is. It’s true that state power has played a integral role in the USSR and Russia (both before and after the revolution) - autocracy turned into the powerful Soviet bureaucracy, and then again into the monolithic capitalist state under Putin - and this led to an interpretation of Soviet life as totalitarian. But as Lenin and Gramsci understood, society is never homogeneous, and no amount of control can be exercised totally. Just as the US had (and has) its resisters - now, perhaps, more than ever - so the USSR had its dissidents. But even besides resisters and dissidents, there are always ordinary people going about their ordinary lives - that is, civil society. The situation of total fear and paranoia described by, say, Solzhenitsyn, beggars belief. In the words of the FBI agent, society “just doesn’t work like that”.

A final point to made with respect to this episode and the model of state power it demonstrates - and this is either unconscious or an act of pretty subtle subversion - the idea that the state that exists in a “proper relation” with civil society is not amenable to a coup also suggests that the state machine, backed by the power of civil society and US-style bourgeois democracy, can carry on even if the head of state is killed. At another level, however, it suggests a more important truth of bourgeois politics: that the individuals who form the state - Reagan, Haig - are interchangeable. If a trembling of state power can unveil the power of the civil society that backs it, then the state itself is unnecessary unless - as Lenin has it - it is nothing but the machinery of oppression of one class by another. This idea opens the door to a civil society being able to get along without a state apparatus at all, one of the most basic elements in a future communist society.

Thus the differences between Soviet and American views of state power can be read as supporting both American bourgeois hegemony and, more subversively, the eventual victory of communism.

Quotes from: Razmig Keucheyan, The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today, Verso, 2014.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview