Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth

Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, & Slavoj Žižek, eds.

Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2007).

In To The Finland Station (1940), Edmund Wilson drew an early political parallel between Lenin’s vanguard Bolshevik Party and the subsequent totalitarian dictatorship of the Soviet state: “[Lenin’s] trained band of revolutionists, the Party, turned into a tyrannical machine which perpetuated, as heads of a government, the intolerance, the deviousness, the secrecy, the ruthlessness with political dissidents, which they had had to learn as hunted outlaws” (480f). This claim of ineluctable historical causality, part of the liberal “God-that-failed” recoil against Stalinism in the 1930s, has been recycled ever since in the debate about the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union. In his biography of Lenin (2000), Robert Service repeats the same ideological mantra of Lenin’s fatal Bolshevik flaws: “Lenin was the main creator of the Russian Communist Party itself, a party distinguished by commitments to centralism, hierarchy and activism… It would be… absurd to suppose that the Soviet one-party, one ideology state would have been born without Lenin” (489). The collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to give the final stamp of approval to this charge against Lenin, Stalin and the Bolsheviks of collective historic culpability.

It was therefore with rising radical expectations that I opened this “rallying call” of essays on the renewed relevance of Lenin today, which, according to the editors, “aims at repeating, in the present global conditions, the ‘Leninian’ gesture of reinventing the revolutionary project in the conditions of imperialism, colonialism, and world war” (3). Brave words, but I must admit the obscure neologism ‘Leninian’ made me somewhat wary from the start. What I also got, while plodding through all seventeen of what turns out to be mainly old academic conference papers from 2001, was a slow sinking feeling that if this is Lenin reloaded, I fear he may be firing blanks.

As I said, the collection looks enormously promising, bringing together some of today’s most illustrious radical cultural theorists – Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Žižek, Alex Callinicos, Etienne Balibar, Jean-Jacques Lecercle and Antonio Negri among others. Sadly, it turns out to be a similar sort of line-up to the one that gathered round to resurrect the ghost of Marx in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist “work of mourning,” Specters of Marx (1993). This time it’s the spirit of Lenin that is to be resuscitated in another ‘post-marxist’ return of the repressed. As Fredric Jameson posits in an essay that promotes his own esoteric brand of Leninian “revisionism”: “Lenin does not know he is dead: this will be our text and our mystery” (60).

Despite the professed commitment (in the subtitle) to a “Politics of Truth,” there is little or no real attempt to explain in Leninist terms either the rise of Stalinism or the fall of the Soviet Union as specific historical phenomena. Instead, many of the contributors are much more keen to reiterate the now familiar ideological disclaimers to distance themselves from Lenin as the prime instigator of the brutal Soviet apparatchiki. Eagleton for instance declares not only that “Lenin was a pitiless purist when it came to the party, purging and expelling with unshakeable zeal” (54), but also that his “relentless vanguardism helped to destroy soviet democracy and lay the ground for Stalinism” (57). Jameson states in more oblique terms that “the current mentality recoils with acute displeasure” at, “first, the authoritarianism and sectarianism of Lenin’s first party form; then the murderous violence of the Stalin era (trained as much, to be sure, on the original Bolshevik party members as on the latter’s opponents and critics)” (61). Even more ideologically quirky is Lars T. Lih’s characterisation: “I think if we compare Lenin to an evangeslistic revival preacher, we will get a good grasp of what he was up to… His triumph and his failures, his achievements and his crimes, all stem from this awe-inspiring, even bizarre confidence” (283f). In another, similarly idiosyncratic essay, one that blames the “retreat of Marxism” on its never having “produced a theory of language” (272), Jean-Jacques Lecercle gives a further paradoxical twist to this querulous Leninian discourse: “I do not mean to damn Lenin with faint praise, I mean to praise him with strong damnation” (270).

Not surprisingly, the one text that recurs throughout the collection, indeed it is referred to in almost every single essay, is Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? It is as though many of the contributors cannot get beyond this early work (1902) on the role of the revolutionary organisation in Russia at that time. This, it seems, is where it all started to go wrong: Lenin’s authoritarian elitism already paving the way for Stalin’s totalitarian Gulag. The idea of the party remains so abhorrent, even today, to intellectuals like Sylvain Lazarus (“Lenin and the Party”) that he wants us to abandon it altogether: “In my view, the root of the problem is not the lack of a party or a revolution, the mourning for this, but on the contrary the need for an intellectuality of politics without party or revolution, something that does not prevent radicalism or prescribe resignation to the order of things but imposes the hypothesis of other possibilities” (265). The struggle for socialism without recourse to either political parties or social revolution is of course another recurring academic pipe dream. One recalls for example Derrida’s hopelessly negative appeal in Specters of Marx for the creation of a “New International,” albeit one that is “without status, without title, and without name, barely public even if it is not clandestine, without contract, ‘out of joint,’ without coordination, without party, without country, without national community… without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class” (85).

In contrast to all of this intellectual equivocation, there is a great deal of scholastic enthusiasm in the collection for Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, which he compiled after the outbreak of the First World War. Much is made in at least four of the essays (which are also among the longest) of Lenin’s intensive reading of Hegel at this traumatic historical juncture. One can discern an almost desperate desire to prove a metaphysical turn in Lenin’s thinking here: faced with the disaster of World War I and the collapse of the Second International, the great Bolshevik leader appears to seek solace in some higher Hegelian dialectics. I seem to recall a similar metaphysical move being made in the 1970s with regard to the appearance in English of Marx’s Grundrisse, which, it was claimed, revealed a more humanistically Hegelian Marx in contrast to the later dour and economically deterministic author of Capital.

A further deeply disappointing aspect of the collection is the fact that the essays are all written by men, who also seem more or less oblivious to the link between Lenin and the struggle for women’s liberation. Kevin B. Anderson does make one intriguing, throwaway remark about Lenin “widening the orthodox Marxian notion of the revolutionary subject” which today would include “women, ecologists, gays and lesbians” (143), but nothing more is said about this. Are there no socialist-feminist scholars who could have been invited to contribute at least one critical essay on Lenin and gender? Lenin himself wrote extensively on the decisive importance of the women’s movement and the new Bolshevik government made pioneering advances in the sphere of gender equality. In 1920 Soviet Russia became for instance the first country in the world to legalise abortion and to decriminalise homosexuality. Women also gained the right to vote, full citizenship and equal pay. It is incomprehensible that the editors failed to include anything on the subject in the collection. It just makes their so-called ‘reloading’ of Lenin appear even more predictably phallocentric.

“Why focus on Lenin today?” This is certainly the most pertinent question posed by the editors in their introduction. To find the answer, however, one would have to look elsewhere than in this book. A much more inspiring place to start is in Lenin’s own writings. His key pamphlets – Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Socialism and War, The State and Revolution, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, ‘Left-Wing Communism’: An Infantile Disorder – remain as relevant and readable today as when they were first written. A useful selection of Lenin’s shorter writings from February to October 1917, Revolution at the Gates (2002), has been edited and introduced by Slavoj Žižek. More recently, Ian Birchall’s brief introduction to Lenin, the man, his ideas and their relevance to the 21st century – A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin (2005) – is also invaluable in helping to bridge the historical gap between then and now.

Lenin saw the beginning of what he called the “epoch of wars and revolutions.” Today we still face the challenges of that epoch.

Reviewed by Ronald Paul
University of Gothenburg

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