Political Seizures: Lenin in 2017
A most interesting—and troubling—thing about Lenin in this centenary year of the 1917 “October” Revolution is that in the press and other circles he has become associated with Steve Bannon, formerly Trump’s chief strategist and guru. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too,” Bannon is quoted as saying: “I want to bring everything crashing down and destroy all of today’s establishment.” The Guardian’s Victor Sebestyen proceeds to justify the connection, with V. I.’s putative post-coup suppression of the free press, scapegoating of enemies, belligerence of style, and general mendacity all as points of comparison.1
The Lenin–Bannon linkage is a testament not only to the extent of the Bolshevik leader’s vilification, and to the power of cultural appropriation, but also to left-liberal compliance with both. Lenin deserves to be remembered with critical attention—and seized (not conceded as an offering to the Moloch of Human Rights). At stake are both the loss of vital historical understanding of the legacy of socialism–communism, as well as the confusion of radical social emancipation with counterrevolution. It is Bannon’s, not Lenin’s, “destruction” of the state that remains a smoking ruin, with only a many-limbed security apparatus to enforce social cohesion.
None of which, however, is to say that Bannon entirely misunderstands Lenin’s importance. Both have recognized the political limits, even banalities, of liberal individualism and of ossified representative democracy, especially at moments of crisis. Both, too, have recognized the impact of global geopolitics on the question of national legitimacy—even though the likeness ends there: while Bannon is a proponent of “economic nationalism” (albeit with private-sector neo-colonial capacities), Lenin was a committed internationalist.
Lenin remains the first of a fin-de-siècle generation of Marxists who saw and rejected the failure of will and of thought at the heart of the Second International, whose cheap teleology and bourgeois Eurocentrism meant, at worst, extensive socialist capitulation to the 1914–18 imperialist slaughter. We find the Second International’s prodigy in every encounter with those who conflate Marxism with economic determinism and who cite the confident prophecies of the 1848 Manifesto as an encapsulation of Marx’s far-reaching intellectual trajectory. In a word, Lenin—much like his Western counterparts Lukács, Bloch, Korsch, Luxemburg, Gramsci, and even Benjamin—recognized the necessities and ruptures of dialectics—what we might call the “logic” of non-identity and inversion.
Most important for Lenin was the question of the revolutionary Subject: heterogeneous, incomplete, and liable to misdirection without vigorous theory and vibrant, intransigent structures of practice. Part of the answer to that question is the insight that political possibility cannot be reduced to what Lukács called “reified objectivity”: contingency is not the same as necessity. Just as important is the dialectical sensitivity to the possibility that the germination of world-altering mass mobilization can occur locally, as historically specific, boundary-shattering happenings. Lenin demonstrated how such phenomena must be (as with the Great War) attended to with the greatest care—not eclipsed by grand intellectual categories—and then utilized.
Lukács especially prized Lenin’s readiness. Because he, “with the perception of genius, immediately recognize[d] the fundamental problem of our time—the approaching revolution—at the time and place of its first appearance,” Lenin has become, after Marx, the greatest theorist of the revolutionary situation whose dimensions exceed, test, and revise theory per se. “From then on,” Lukács continues, Lenin “understood and explained all events, Russian as well as international, from this perspective—from the perspective of the actuality of the revolution… the core of Lenin’s thought….”2
Lenin’s other great contribution—the party—conditions and maximizes these insights. To quote Daniel Bensaïd:
Revolutions have their own tempo, marked by accelerations and slow-downs. They also have their own geometry, where the straight line is broken in bifurcation and sudden turns. The party thus appears in a new light. For Lenin, it is no longer the result of a cumulative experience, nor the modest teacher with the task of raising proletarians from the darkness of ignorance to the illumination of reason. It becomes a strategic operator, a sort of gearbox and point man of the class struggle.3
The party provides the class-conscious proletariat with a rare Archimedean point of leverage that secures a sense of direction, ethical and tactical, amid the twists and contingencies, upsets and convergences, and above all contradictions of the uneven field of politics. Most central to this class-consciousness, therefore, was the proletariat’s universalizing capacity to see itself outside itself, in the oppressed peoples of the colonies, so that it “overcomes its own nationalism by fighting for the full national dependence of another people” (all the while keeping in sight the internationalist endgame).4
While these achievements must be learned and transmitted, any commemoration of Lenin now must be self-aware and historicized. His thought and legacy must become part of the redeployment of both dialectics and the party form to which, through grueling practice, Lenin himself contributed so much. In the name of dialectics, then, let us put our emphasis, for the moment, on the now-discredited category of the party. After all, to accept the Marxist critique of class dynamics under capitalism is decidedly not to automatically understand, let alone activate, the means of resistance and replacement. We continue to flounder in what Jodi Dean calls the “era of commanded individuality,” so perhaps the twentieth century’s great disillusionment with the party will, in the tweny-first, give way to something better: the great disillusionment with party-less politics.5
The party can be a persistent, resourceful structure to activate and lead class struggle, “a form for the knowledge we gain through experience and analyze with our eyes on the communist horizon.” And, to our surprise, the party can actually liberate the individuated human being from atomization and frustration; from a hungry, handwringing, choice-driven ego that must attack and eat itself. The very notion that the party, renewed for our times, could enable creativity and connection, not just discipline and deference, is itself a testament to the dialectical turn.
1. Victor Sebestyen, “Bannon says he’s a Leninist: that could explain the White House’s new tactics,” The Guardian, 6 February 2017; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/06/lenin-white-house-steve-bannon -house-steve-bannon.
2. Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, trans. Nicholas Jacobs (1924; London: Verso, 2009), 11 (original emphasis).
3. Daniel Bensaïd, “’Leaps! Leaps! Leaps!’,” in Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth, eds. Sebastian Budgen, Eustache Kouvelakis, and Slavoj ŽižBudgen et al. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 151.
4. Lukács, Lenin, 48.
5. Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (New York: Verso, 2016), 31.
6. Ibid., 260.