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Kutuzov: For a destituent strategy today

“Even those who denounce the permanent state of emergency do not hesitate to repeat the same slogans, to make the same appeals as the “decision-makers”, who now work shamelessly and in the open for the “Great Restoration”… . However, “To live up to the event today, in this human world that we now know to be finished, does this not call instead for doing nothing, for radicalising our imposed inactivity?”

Stéphane Hervé and Luca Salza

Originally published by Lundi Matin. Translated by Autonomies.

But Count Rostopchin, who now taunted those who left Moscow and now had the government offices removed; now distributed quite useless weapons to the drunken rabble; now had processions displaying the icons, and now forbade Father Augustin to remove icons or the relics of saints; now seized all the private carts in Moscow and on one hundred and thirty-six of them removed the balloon that was being constructed by Leppich; now hinted that he would burn Moscow and related how he had set fire to his own house; now wrote a proclamation to the French solemnly upbraiding them for having destroyed his Orphanage; now claimed the glory of having hinted that he would burn Moscow and now repudiated the deed; now ordered the people to catch all spies and bring them to him, and now reproached them for doing so; now expelled all the French residents from Moscow, and now allowed Madame Aubert-Chalmé (the center of the whole French colony in Moscow) to remain, but ordered the venerable old postmaster Klyucharev to be arrested and exiled for no particular offense; now assembled the people at the Three Hills to fight the French and now, to get rid of them, handed over to them a man to be killed and himself drove away by a back gate; now declared that he would not survive the fall of Moscow, and now wrote French verses in albums concerning his share in the affair—this man did not understand the meaning of what was happening but merely wanted to do something himself that would astonish people, to perform some patriotically heroic feat; and like a child he made sport of the momentous, and unavoidable event—the abandonment and burning of Moscow—and tried with his puny hand now to speed and now to stay the enormous, popular tide that bore him along with it.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace Bk 11, Ch. V

After having just described the waging of the war – the Russians abandoned the field of honor after the battle of Borodino (September 7, 1812) and the French, led by their brave Emperor, are on their way to take Moscow – Tolstoy offers us a striking picture of what this war provokes behind the lines. Count Rostopchin, the military governor of Moscow, works with ardor and selflessness in the defense of the city. For several months now, he has not stopped producing public notices to alert the population of the advances of Napoleon’s army in Russia. When the events follow one upon the other, he multiplies his actions. And even though these actions may contradict each other, what matters is the movement, the agitation we would say: you have to give the impression of doing something; it is especially not advisable to remain inert before the abandonment of Moscow.

Moscow is, indeed, “deserted”; an “unbelievable event” has taken place.

After Borodino, the Russian army decided not to defend the city and withdrew to the hinterland. The inhabitants of the city logically leave as well. In addition, fires begin to ravage Moscow. When Napoleon enters the city, there is no deputation to wait for him. Why? What’s going on? No negotiation is possible: “there could be no question as to whether things would go well or ill under French rule in Moscow. It was out of the question to be under French rule, it would be the worst thing that could happen.” In the name of this, the Muscovites abandon their property, disperse out beyond the city, desert it in the true sense of the word. This mass desertion is commanded by Field Marshal Kutuzov, the inventor of a strategy of retreat in the face of the advance of the Napoleonic Grand Army. “Inventor” is probably too strong a word, for Kutuzov in fact hardly utters a word, nor does he define or outline any strategy. He even mocks strategists. Kutuzov is presented precisely as the opposite of Rostopchin. If the governor preaches action, Kutuzov is distinguished by inaction. Although Rostopchin is lively and energetic, Kutuzov falls asleep during war councils, walks unsteadily, has no composure on a horse, sees almost nothing with his only eye. He is always distracted, tired. An inactive field marshal is, let us admit it, an unusual figure. Tolstoy seems to take particular pleasure in describing this old man. Through him, he above all wishes to lead us to reflect upon the attitudes to have before the event. When a great event occurs, when history materialises, when we see it pass in front of us, to use the words of a famous German, what are we to do? In this case, it is a question of who, between Rostopchin and Kutuzov, seizes the event. The narrator asks the question and provides the answer. The activism of Count Rostopchin is not up to what is happening: the count thinks of himself as a man who can act in history, can intervene in history, can do things, while the abandonment, desertion, the non-doing that Kutuzov “personifies”, in this precise case, are, according to the narrator, the only possible response to history. “Patience and time”: it is in answering the question “What is to be done?” with idleness, [in terms désœuvrés] that Kutuzov develops a victorious strategy against Napoleon.

Confined at home for more than two months, in another type of “desert”, instead of Camus and Agamben, we preferred to read Tolstoy. We do not believe that recent events can be grasped if we stop at existential anxieties, if we are content to reflect on the emergence of a government based on consented to lies and the perenniality, otherwise detestable, of the state of emergency. Due to the fortuitous chronological sequence with social movements of the last winter, this period first raises numerous questions about political strategy. The struggle is not over. Because, behind the narcissism of various blogs or journals of confinement, behind the justifications for prohibitions and contact tracing for everyone’s well-being, behind the supposedly objective data listed by experts in public health, epidemiology, virology, microbiology, infectious disease, in literally anything (if there was a great victim during this period, it has indeed been the very idea of objectivity – no one believes in it any more), political stakes are still being hatched. And who are the people who have been forced to continue to go to their workplace for a miserable salary? Of course, they have been promised bonuses, but under what conditions! They were conceded social recognition, as they say in the media, as if a “thank you” added to a smiling portrait, as appeared on the front page of a major daily newspaper in the north, could be enough to make them honorary citizens. Besides, they have already disappeared. Everything finally restarts again, exclaimed, relieved, the commentators. But the fear of the strike shows itself already.

To our astonishment, in a historical context favorable to the shutdown of the system, to strikes in effect, we were able to read posters, texts, proclamations by various Rostopchin of our modern time which urged us to “act”.

Freedom, freedom … freedom! They said. It is necessary to act. To counter the state of emergency. To demonstrate, to go out. Are we no longer the “people of the cafe terraces”, they wondered, amazed? And the school, this preeminent place of emancipation, why is it still closed? It is the fate of our children that is at stake. It is necessary, urgent, vital to start life over again, even if it is a useless, meaningless life, subject to the law of value, the life we knew before the outbreak of the virus. We must have read kilometres of lines written by these indignant Rostoptchins. They want to fight – by the pen, of course, let us not exaggerate as well – they get agitated, they invite us to move so as not to sink into inactivity, in the desert.

On all sides, verbal agitation, an analytical escalation, a dizzying profusion of speech decreeing the urgency of action. Even those who denounce the abnormality of power, the permanent state of emergency, do not hesitate to repeat the same slogans, the same calls as the “decision-makers” on this and the other side of the planet, who now work shamelessly and in the open for the “Great Restoration”, for the resumption and acceleration of the economic and social model which dominated before confinement [1]. Should the “Bullshit Economy” start again, David Graeber asked himself a month ago? Should we still devote ourselves to “this stupid sector” made up of “all these people [managers, HR and telemarketing consultants, administrators, managers …] whose job, in short, is to convince you that their job is not a pure and simple aberration”?[2] Everything of course started again (Graeber was not fooled), and the stimulus plans, as miraculous as the multiplication of bread, are accompanied by other plans, no doubt drawn up by these same consultants who have been idle for too long: layoff plans, reorganisation, modernisation … And the threats, the blackmail abound. Do we really have to follow the rules of this stupid economy, and promote its own unnecessary agitation?

To live up to the event today, in this human world that we now know to be already finished, does this not call instead for doing as Kutuzov, that is, to continue to do nothing, to radicalise our imposed inactivity? Let Rostopchin be agitated and the consultants aberrant.

We can no longer breathe in this world because of a virus, because of air pollution, because of state violence, because of an ever more oppressive heat, because of an industrial explosion or of a Seveso classified factory. We all know it. We live in this end, in the time frame of this end. It’s not the business of a few prophets. Everyone sees it, everyone knows it. Perhaps this is the novelty. The current epidemic teaches us in an irreversible way: we live in catastrophe. The catastrophe is not for tomorrow, as our leaders keep repeating so as to demand of us what they call “adaptations” (earning less, working more) or to make us feel guilty about our habits. Here we are. This time, it is a virus that reveals the disaster. It is, in reality, a whole system, social, political, economic, moral, which is in deep crisis, which “suffocates” us.

Why then pretend nothing has happened? To fight, to struggle, to do something … For what? For the world of yesterday? For traffic jams in the city? For crowded subways? For a sky polluted with planes? For a school that for at least thirty years has not helped anyone move up? To die face down with no air in one’s lungs? For a few cents in handouts on the backs of the wages of those of us who have been most exposed to the virus?

Despite a slowed production, we did not lack any material goods during the crisis. The system evidently “over-produces”. Faced with this Napoleon, always advancing forward, constantly producing, will our strategy be to oppose him with another activism?

We called for a “Tramp strike” [grève-Charlot] when the social movement exploded in France before the epidemic [3]. We believe in the strike as a gesture of total shutdown, a shutdown of the system, of its machine and machinery. There is one more lesson to be learned from these past months (undoubtedly, inaction reveals itself to be rich in knowledge): this supposedly uncontrollable machine can stop moving, you just have to want it. Did not confinement indirectly reaffirm the political power of the strike, in which few still believed?

Continuing to do nothing, after the epidemic, means continuing this strike, radicalising it, because this time the event really concerns everyone. Instead of crying out loud about the loss of our dear freedom, we must seize the opportunity, seize the time. “Time and patience”. This is strategic thinking. We need to turn the lockdown into a strike. Knowing that only a strike – stopping everything, stopping the world – can save us. All activity is now useless, even criminal.

Let us withdraw, remove ourselves, so as not to participate in spite of ourselves (while contesting them) in the great social gatherings which are beginning or taking shape, organised by all of the instituted bodies (States, political parties, media) to reflect on the world after; so as not to take part involuntarily in social control, by hunting out the famous dropouts, “lost” to the educational institutions, which perceive them as irrecoverable and disturbing shadows; so as not to give ground, of forms and moments of life, of gestures without market value, that appropriating capitalism will try to trample little by little, for trying to get away from hedonistic consumerism that is tinged as conviviality and being together. Let’s listen to President Macron and literally follow his screwed up belligerent metaphor. Didn’t he say that by doing nothing in “the rear, we are helping secure victory”? Well, let us take him at his word, but reverse the lines. Let us fight with inaction.

Retreat becomes, in effect, the strategy of victory. Therefore, stopping production/destruction is an autonomous political gesture. It is no longer a dead power that confines us. We are the ones who decide to stop everything. Only those for whom to live means to ceaselessly provide what is missing, from whom inaction is a privation, synonymous with powerlessness, like the creatives and specialists who suffered in not producing value, like managers who could not produce their reports, go happily off to work again. We continue to read and write, to garden, playing chess with our children, taking our old out of nursing homes. We forge other social ties, such as those created by the people’s relief brigades [brigades de secours populaire], other ways of being. While power invites us to make, to spend, to be the same as before, we choose to do nothing. We save the world and our lives. Imagine the faces of political commentators, imagine the faces of government ministers, like Ms. Pénicaud who begs us to quickly spend the money saved during confinement, imagine the faces of bosses and their managers, zealous consultants, administrators and other accountants, if no one participates in the “recovery” effort. A gigantic strike paralysing everything, continuing to paralyse everything. Imagine their faces, of all the beautiful people of Fouquet’s, of the representatives of the puppet “start-up nation”, of all the productivists, if we continue to do nothing …

They will look like that poor bugger Napoleon when he entered Moscow and found no one. His army could not even make its fine triumphal march, as usual. A terrible situation overwhelmed him: the “ridiculous”. Is there a more powerful weapon against the powerful? A conquering army, after months of fierce fighting, seizes a city, but no one is there! Its leader is not entitled to any act of submission. It is then that Napoleon loses all the military genius that made him immortal, that his famous army ceases to be a compact horde and becomes a heap of brigands. On the other hand, however, the Russians, in this strategy of avoidance, once again become a people. A people in struggle. Indeed, Kutuzov’s strategy is the consequence of the fierce will that emerges anonymously, without reason, without any declaration, from the viscera of an entire people.

We too, by continuing our exile, by radicalising our non-doing, we again become a people, a Schweik-people, an insubordinate, non-negotiable, refractory people.

After the fires in Moscow and the final departure of the French, bands organise themselves to harass the Grand Army during its flight. Denisov, Dolochov are silhouettes of former guerrillas. They are the leaders of a partisan war, the first heroic examples of a war of liberation. Forms of “resistance” are also being organised today, in the face of the stupidity and harmfulness of power. But, like Kutuzov, we hope to get beyond the dialectic of friend/enemy, power/counter-power. Kutuzov never wants to attack, he has to fight against his generals aspiring to glory. Stop, it is not worth it. Do not seek war. We are here. And that’s all. Kutuzov understands that victory will come from this determination. It is a determination resulting from the terrible will of a whole people: the people manifest themselves in this very refusal. More precisely: it is this refusal that creates the people.

In order to characterise this refusal, to explain the Russian retreat, Tolstoy speaks of a “negative act” which brought the people together and drove the French out. It’s an admirable expression. Kutuzov is, in spite of himself, in spite of his stripes, a name of this destituent strategy.

At this time, there is a proliferation of this kind of “negative acts”, despite all of the injunctions of power to mobilise, despite all of the Rostopchins. Even a people/non-people begins to gain form. It has no intention of participating in the efforts at restoration. It is ready to go away, to desert, to try to live, still. Comrades, let us continue to demobilise.

[1] See: Alain Brossat, Alain Naze, L’épouvantable restauration globale, cf.

[2] David Graeber, “Vers une bullshit economy”, Libération, 27 mai 2020.

[3] See: Pierandrea Amato, Luca Salza, Pour une grève-Charlot, cf. The grève-Charlot is a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s character of the “Tramp” in the film “Modern Times”, who for all his efforts to work, simply fails, finally by choice.

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