To be a revolutionary during the first decade of the 20th century meant recognizing that one stood at the beginning of a new strategic era, one marked by the eclipse and exhaustion of a certain Blanquist solution to the problem of revolutionary conquest. For the Blanquist conspiracists of the 19th century, the subversion of the capitalist system depended not on the peaceful construction of Proudhonist economic cooperatives but on the direct conquest of political power by a resolute minority, which must then rally the masses behind it while enforcing its rule through strict centralized means. By the late 19th century, however, the idea that a successful revolutionary movement could be initiated through an external attack or a coup d’état spearheaded by a secret conspiracy of committed comrades had been sidelined by the overwhelming potency of mass proletarian spontaneity. In the USA, Germany, Italy, and Russia, the international wave of mass strikes between 1901-1906 forced the resolute minority to acknowledge that “not only are revolutionaries in general lagging behind the spontaneous awakening of the masses, but even worker-revolutionaries are lagging behind the spontaneous awakening of the working-class masses.” The level of communication, coordination, and international mobility displayed by “fully-unleashed” proletarian class struggle outpaced anything that the vanguards of the previous epoch could have imagined. The task of the vanguard was no longer to initiate an insurrection, but to educate and translate the social wildcat as a “virus of social insubordination” into a force that could carry its own agenda to its revolutionary conclusion.
Romain Gavras’ new film Athena spits us out at the end of this historical cycle: whereas the mass worker once superseded the Blanquist secret society, today it is the working class that has receded, no longer capable of playing the role of the leading historical element in revolutionary sequences. The film tells the story of an insurrection initiated by the residents of a marginalized neighborhood who, following the police murder of a 15-year-old boy, decide to bring the fight to the enemy. Through a strange historical short circuit, Gavras invites us to begin where the Blanquist insurrection was supposed to end, namely, in a storming of the bastions of state power. Athena opens with a breathtaking ten minute Blitzkrieg attack on a precinct during which a determined cadre of youths firebomb a police press conference, crash a car through the foyer and proceed to sack the station, retreating with looted riot gear and arms.
Is the Blanquist question back on the table? It is undeniable that we are in the presence of a resolute minority. The dispossessed youth of the suburbs and exurbs set about organizing an uprising on their own initiative, disarming the enemy, barricading roads, and occupying key buildings in their neighborhood. Yet the vanguard does not return the same way that it left. In the absence of a popular mass of workers to lead, after their mission is successful the clandestine mob — operating on the margins of a society in which it is unable to recognize itself — simply returns home. Their battle originates and terminates in a zone of exile beyond which they make no attempt to venture. And for some, it will be a battle fought to the death.
This is how Athena foregrounds the paradoxical status of the insurgent vanguard in our epoch of generalized fragmentation, marked as it is by the splintering of mass political subjectivity and the eclipse of revolutionary horizons. The function of the proverbial “tip of the spear” remains, yet the shared experience of labor that once coordinated hostilities as well as the vision of programmatic social transformation that served to guide it have largely been excised. Although the inhabitants of Athena will set in motion a sequence that will soon spread nationwide, igniting a “civil war in 30 cities,” they will do so seemingly without any knowledge of who has picked up the baton, what the chain of events that succeeds them looks like, nor where any of this is heading. Although it is through the violence of its police that the social totality speaks to them, the violence of their reply does not address this totality, but remains confined to its immediate situation: they make no effort to spread their actions into other parts of the city, there are no calls for solidarity or address to other groups or sections of the population who might experience similar oppression. And yet, without their initiative there would be no insurrection.
Is the film dramatizing the collapse of politics into nihilism? If we read the political perspective of the film uniquely through the consciousness that the residents of Athena express, their explicit formulation of the stakes of the antagonism and the narrow scope of what “winning” looks like to them, Gavras could certainly be accused of a pessimistic, if not nihilistic attitude concerning the prospects of revolution in our young century. And to be sure, this is how many will receive it.
From another perspective, however, the film holds open a wider imagination than it allows its own protagonists to perceive. What feels most timely in Athena is the gap it maintains between the tightly-bound immediacy in which its protagonists act, and the broader situation of France. As we overhear through television newscasts, the youths’ daring actions initiate an enormous nationwide insurgent sequence. Riots have spread to some thirty cities across the country. And yet this fact, once discovered, nevertheless immediately recedes from their view. What is real to them is the spatial expanse extending from the police station to the housing block, which they intensely inhabit over 24 hours of continuous Jetztzeit. It is precisely by living entirely within this circumscribed immediacy — the terrain of combat, the battle — that they are able to initiate a wave of uprisings across the country, one which they neither anticipate nor reorient towards. The two series of events, the local and the national, remain thoroughly disjointed. They remain siloed, as if held in relief from the consequences of their own action.
How are we to understand the hyper-localism of their struggle? Recall the pivotal scene where Karim gives his speech in the courtyard to his comrades who have gathered around him. It begins with a roll call, during which we learn that many other banlieues have sent comrades to Athena to support their uprising. Such a concentration of the suburban gangs in one place is, of course, every bit as ahistorical as the film’s portrayal of leadership during a banlieue riot. In reality, not only do anti-police riots have no executive command structure, but other banlieues would typically show their support by echoing the riot in their home turf, not by traveling to its epicenter. However, the fact that they converge on Athena rather than extending the revolt laterally is not merely a filmic artifice designed to constrain plot and setting. It also allows the film to meditate on a more generic feature of the lived experience of revolts: hyperlocalism is only the outward appearance of a deeper rift that uprisings introduce within the fabric of historical experience. From the moment things are in motion, insurgents’ vision often becomes drawn into the radiant symbolic polarization installed by the event of the conflict, with the result that the broader historical totality in which we operate can easily slink out of view. In such moments, what is felt as real falls entirely within the space and time of the battle. The space of the city becomes territorialized, distributed into friendly or hostile terrain, ours and theirs. Meanwhile, time contracts and becomes stilled: everything that happened before the revolt or that will happen after it retreats into the distance, practically inaccessible. The temporality of revolt is that of an eternal present, both now or never and once and for all.
When revolt crystalizes lived experience into symbols, it does so in a way that reflects the convictions participants held going into the event. This is why, as a rule, the more bereft partisans are of a vision of lasting victory, the deeper the gulf between means and ends becomes, and the wider the margin of senseless sacrifice.
To be sure, having a revolutionary horizon was never a guarantee against the dangers of self-sacrifice under the mythic sway of the event. Hours before his murder during the final days of the 1919 Spartacist uprising in Berlin, Karl Liebknecht exclaimed with mystical conviction that, because the “unstoppable growth” of the living forces of the social revolution was “the natural law of societal development…defeat means stimulus,” since, “through defeat after defeat, their road leads to victory.” Through the prism of the event, ideological faith in the proletariat’s historical triumph had been displaced onto the symbolic plane of eternity, transmuting defeat into the victorious “trumpets of the Last Judgment.” Although their comrades begged them to flee to Frankfurt, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were unable to peel themselves away from the transcendent glow of the fire, and perished like moths in the flames.
A century later, Athena paints a portrait of the Stimmung or affective tonality of the resolute minority in a period marked by the implosion of such political certainties, in which even victorious insurrections produce only defeated revolutions. In its decoupling of action from its outcomes, of antagonism from protagonism, of territorial defense from offensive transformation of the system, of insurrectionaries from revolution, its desperate image of combat invites us to reflect on the negative horizons of our own era of revolt. While tactics circulate globally — is there anything more international these days than a barricaded road? — the frame and imagination of the many countless uprisings of our time remains stubbornly local and resistant to conjugation. In the rare cases where they do manage to push out the bourgeois political order and its police for any length of time, such as in Chiapas, Rojava, or at Notre-dame-des-landes, they are constrained like the protagonists in the film to a purely defensive posture vis-à`vis the bourgeois states that surround them — a “lasting embarrassment” to be sure, but one unable to exercise the kind of offensive constraint that would force real change upon them.
Gavras does not show us a revolution. We are offered only the early phases of an insurrection without any clear contours, initiated by people who cannot see the field beyond the narrow role that history has confined them to. Is this not our condition today? We know that it must begin somewhere. We know that we cannot wait. We know that the reasons it begins will always be local, personal, intimately interwoven with territorial histories, patterns of everyday suffering, and local strategic intelligence. Yet we also know that the sequence we must initiate, and which no one can be counted on to do so but us, must completely eclipse its initial frame of reference and context and spread across the country like a virus or a piece of music, taking on diverse resonances and echoes in each locale it enters. For this reason, we also know that the result will be unrecognizable to its origins. We know that we cannot know, but must act anyway. In short, we are origins without a destination, means without ends.
At the same time, the film has the merit of reminding us that consciousness of one’s position within the wider totality has ceased to form the condition of being an historical actor. For the time being, the role of catalyst today must perhaps be played by actors utterly incapable of accepting their “vocation” or task, and who remain totally unprepared for it. Whereas the role of the vanguard was previously to concentrate the energies of the mass into the compact force of the class — and, having done so, to chart a course from punctual, strategically selected nodes of conflict into a broader assault capable of defeating the police and suppressing the economy, thereby initiating a social transformation of everyday life — here its role is confined procedurally to being the tip of the spear that opens the field of conflict; beyond that, it is unable to intervene.
In one sense, a certain latency between locality and totality should come as no surprise to anyone who lived through the George Floyd rebellion of 2020. For many participants, it was only after they removed their goggles and the sweaty, chemical-soaked balaclava, far away from the heat of things, that they would turn on their phone to discover the magnitude of the events that had unfolded nearby and elsewhere. Yet the challenge of reading Athena lies in the way it both exhibits and obscures the gap between part and whole, between practice and historical totalization. We are confronted with not merely a study of the experience of revolt, nor a perspective upon revolt from the standpoint of the historical bystander, but both at once. As a result, the film continually traverses a void between actors in the process of throwing history out of joint and those spectating upon it. We are drawn into the suspended time of revolt, yet in order to situate the experience of its “siloed” protagonism the film forces us to play the role of a historical consciousness that is absent for its agents.
It is at this point that Gavras tells a little lie. In the final minutes of the film, it is revealed that the child supposedly murdered by police was in fact executed by accelerationist fascists, ostensibly in an effort to provoke a social crisis. When the real historical protagonists first get wind of this hypothesis — not unlike the hysteric liberal myth of “boogaloo bois” initiating the rebellion in Minneapolis — they immediately discard it as an either ignorant or malicious rumor designed to undermine them (“QAnon for liberals,” as was said in 2020). Although the “global” perspective of the film wants to take this possibility seriously, as far as the actors on the ground are concerned it has not one grain of reality. The evidence of the everyday violence of police speaks for itself.
This conspiratorial subplot — namely, that the protagonists who initiate a revolt have somehow been duped into fighting a battle under false pretenses — invites comparison with another recent film, Henry Dunham’s The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (2018). Dunham’s protagonists spend the bulk of the film strategizing about their position within an unfolding militia uprising, which one among them appears to have initiated without consulting the others. It is only in the final scene that we discover that the entire scenario has been fabricated by malicious police officers in order to provoke them into action, as a pretense for exterminating them. At face value, both are films about “technicized” revolts, i.e., revolts lived authentically by their protagonists, yet which are later revealed to serve purposes aligned with the ruling order, or worse. However, it is noteworthy that these narratives become real only from the external point of view offered to the film’s spectator. Whereas the perspective of the filmmaker (or, in 2020, liberals on social media) want us to believe that it is fascists who form the true “center” of the event in Athena, becoming its “authentic” actors — since they lie behind the “true” causal sequence at play — from the point of view of the actors on the ground these fascists strictly do not matter. Whereas Dunham’s film collapses all truths into the farcical machinations of history, Athena reminds us that there is the truth of the event from without and there is the truth of the event from within…and no dialogue between them is possible.
In accordance with the spontaneous ideology of the spectacle, liberal readings of the film align themselves unilaterally with the conspiracist narrative, discounting the rest: “you see, these naive kids were the playthings of the fascists, who are simply using them to destroy the country, when in fact, the real cops aren’t even so bad — they just need more oversight, more training, etc.” Such is the little lie that the film allows, by positioning the spectator within the role of a historical synthesis possible only in art, but not in reality.
Unable to comprehend the dignified rage and selfless courage of a generation who would rather fight to the death than bend the knee to police, liberal spectators see in today’s global wave of riots only “bait bricks,” false flags, and the secret machinations of fascists, paranoid narratives whose ultimate function is to legitimize their own fear and passivity.
What if the murder really was the work of fascists? Then what? If we are to take the final scene seriously, we must read it against the conspiracist grain, which vastly overestimates fascist political strategy today.
The liberal mindset has long struggled to make sense of far-right accelerationism. This is because it presumes a far thicker political policy than is typically present. If you’ve ever forced yourself to sift through the swamp of neo-Nazi discourse over the past four decades, then you know that the wager of stochastic terrorists inspired by William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries and James Mason’s Siege is far more open-ended than is often acknowledged. While certain mythological narratives stubbornly persist, an enormous distance separates the strategic aims of neo-Nazis like Robert Jay Mathews, who organized the militant wing of the Aryan Nations and Christian Identity movements into armed struggle cadres during the early 1980s, from “black-pilled” neofascist groups like Atomwaffen Division, let alone individual spree shooters like Timothy Earnest or Payton Gendron. The aim of the latter is not to organize a clandestine guerilla campaign that will eventually initiate a race war, as Mathews’ group “the Order” attempted, but simply to stoke chaos and undermine any sense of stability more generally in the interests (they claim) of destabilizing the System. For today’s fascist terrorists, means and ends stand in an almost total reciprocal isolation: no matter how many times their ostensible goal is mentioned, there is no causal path that leads from the chaos of supermarket shootings and bombings to an eventual “race war” on the other side, and they know it.
Already by 1989, and certainly after the Oklahoma City bombing, it had become clear to most that organizing the kind of national network of paramilitary cells that would be necessary to capitalize on the moment of destabilization is — depending on who you ask — either strategically undesirable (Mason) or presently impractical (Pierce). As a result, although their acts are allegedly motivated by a desire to destabilize society in the service of a race war, far-right accelerationists today functionally accept that system collapse could go any number of directions. The wager of the improperly termed “lone wolf” attacker is to push the system toward chaos even while realizing they can’t be sure to win the ensuing conflict. While they might still appeal to myths of a purifying genocidal cataclysm that will “usher in a new historical epoch,” in actual practice they operate in a far deeper historical silo than the residents of Athena. Not only have they formally suspended all historical–causal reasoning in order to embrace the immediacy of bloodshed here and now, murder for murder’s sake, but their fantasies remain utterly out of sync with the spirit of the times. Whereas uprisings like Minneapolis in 2020 or Ferguson in 2014 reverberated around the globe, inspiring dozens of solidarity demonstrations abroad, the self-referential violence of mass shootings inspire in the vast majority of proletarians only pity and contempt.
Neo-Nazi David Lane once argued that the Fourteen Words, “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” ought to serve as a litmus test for activists in the white supremacist movement: anything short of unequivocal endorsement casts doubt on the sincerity and reliability of a member. For those of us on the other side of history, the opening sequence of Athena might one day play a similar function: if you don’t feel the wind at your back, if you didn’t cheer, perhaps we can’t be friends. Because whatever its other limitations, it is the film’s great merit to have reminded us that history is not made by false flags or the sad terror of “lone wolves” but by the resolute joy of the mob whose actions express a truth felt by us all.