I’ve made remarks in the past about how I’m a complete sucker for a righteous cause and a band of brothers. Thankfully this romanticism has its limits. After all, I am not currently practising the armed struggle and am unlikely to make this leap of faith anytime soon, the foco can wait. Watching Olivier Assayas’s six hour essay on revolutionary, anti-imperialist vanity, Carlos, I take some comfort in its reassurance that I have chosen wisely to have avoided the Kalashnikov cult.
A quality production, Carlos gets down into the weeds of revolutionary commitment. Finally watching the conclusion last night the compelling repugnance of Edgar Ramirez’s characterisation of Carlos and the armed edge of the counter culture was brought into nauseating clarity: vanguardism is vanity. Commitment to the struggle comes at the expense of those whom on whose behalf the struggle is pursued, to believe oneself the vanguard is to prioritise the revolutionary over the revolution. I seem to recall an anarchist telling me once, beer in hand, the revolution must be of, not from.
Terrorism is a tricky thing these days, there’s no IRA and the ANC has gone overground. Not much solidarity to be found or sought in those circles. It is hard to think much of any of the xenophobic fundamentalisms going around, whatever the beauty of their internal logics. As such Carlos is potent canvas for thinking about the limits of commitment. Carlos embodies the revolutionary that Nechaev described in Revolutionary Catechism in the 1860s:
The revolutionary is a dedicated man. He has no personal feelings, no private affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is subordinated towards a single and exclusive attachment, a single thought and a single passion – the revolution.
This is how Carlos describes himself, through the matrix of discipline, but we see him as a drunk, a root rat, a blowhard fatty, and a pathetic dollar chaser.
Carlos has all the commitment to the cause but the fiction of the monofocal revolutionary is there for all to see. Carlos plays the part and longs to live up to it, but the very autocracy of his drive leads him astray. The episodes repeatedly make a gorgeous sashays from pathos to bathos: Carlos is wise and Carlos is stupid; the cause is so worthy and the rhetoric so le Carre; the dreams so loving, the being so banal. How can a man defeat capitalist imperialism when he needs a drink and has blue balls?
A blueprint for the classic populist and anarchist revolutionaries of Tsarist Russia, Nechaev’s template hasn’t really dated, there are still plenty of hard men of the revolution going around the traps, usually with a beer in hand. If you aren’t going to win the true measure of your value to the revolution is how much you’re willing to bet on a loser. The thing is though that if you know it the revolution is a loser then all that commitment and non-commitment is just a pose, a pointless petty grandeur. And that is what Assayas reveals on his canvas, the depth of the pose: the awful egotism and shallowness of killing for representation, for the validation of the facade.