Friday, June 22, 2007
Lenin Reloaded posted by Richard Seymour
Lenin is not merely the name of a deceased revolutionary, (or an epigonic blogger), but a signifier of pure evil. There is no good reason for this: Lenin fought a vicious civil war, but so did the sainted Abraham Lincoln; Lenin suspended habeus corpus, but ditto; Lenin was willing to expand the Bolshevik state with the use of the Red Army, but he wasn't a Great Russian chauvanist, in the way that successive US Presidents were Greater American chauvanists with new and perpetually shifting frontiers; Lenin ruthlessly pursued opposing parties when he perceived them as a threat to the revolution, but so did Robespierre, and to be fair, he had a great deal more provocation than Robespierre. Practically everything the bad man did was also done by good men, and women, under much less taxing circumstances.
To his credit, Lenin was not a racist or imperialist, while Wilson was; Lenin was not in favour of capitalist exploitation, while every opposing force was; Lenin was percipient and fought a sustained fight against Stalinist centralism and autocracy, before anyone else did; Lenin tried to stop World War I, that inferno of mass murder, while most European socialists capitulated. He popularised the term 'revolutionary defeatism', which is the most anti-racist, anti-imperialist and humane terminological innovation in a century whose other inventions included 'genocide', 'holocaust', 'ethnic cleansing' and so on - that one can even say 'and so on' is monstrous in itself. His April Theses foresaw the problems with the Provisional Government and the possibilities of a revolutionary situation even while most of his comrades thought him deluded. He also turned to a productionist version of socialism and was willing to compromise and re-introduce elements of capitalist social relations when it proved necessary. Most importantly, and to his greatest credit, Lenin oversaw the foundation of a Red Army to ruthlessly, without compromise and by any means necessary, defeat the White Army reactionaries and the Entente Powers. He practised what he preached, which was revolutionary realpolitik - power politics for the oppressed and exploited. He foresaw the threat of Stalinism, which is to say he foresaw the defeat of the revolution, and tried in his dying hours to stop it from happening. Of course he had his flaws: all of these circumstances tended to make his prose bombastic, and he was reputedly unwilling to spend much time listening to music.
The new volume, Lenin Reloaded, edited by Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and the particularly evil Slavoj Zizek, takes the figure of Lenin as an unmentionable, unspeakable thug, axiomatically responsible for The Worst Crimes of the Twentieth Century (although in fact he wasn't, not remotely), as it starting point (although, in fact, the theoretical starting point is Badiou and his Politics of Truth). It's a good collection of essays by some of the best marxist scholars working today, and among my favourites is the article by Domenico Losurdo on 'Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy' - Losurdo is, if you ask me, the best critic of capitalist ideology writing today. Here, he engages with the difference between Lenin and Toqueville - between the Russian revolution and the American one, that is. Lenin, as I've mentioned elsewhere, was a birthday internationalist, and it is because of this internationalism, spooled into his gene pool if you like, that he won the respect of and provided the example for anticolonialists across the planet. Woodrow Wilson, a racial fundamentalist and Protestant fanatic, would try to be his equal in appealing to the colonised, but failed because he was himself a supporter of colonialism and Aryan supremacism.
Lenin is one of the topics on which Zizek is both entertaining and politically stringent, sort of. Lars Lih's essay on Lenin as an evangelical enthusiast overturns the notion of Lenin is a cold, calculating machinic presence hovering over the Russia of civil war and famine. It is known by Lenin's biographers that he was an uncharacteristically self-effacing and warm person for a leading revolutionary, (Trotsky, by contrast, was an imperious and dynamic orator). But it isn't well-known what an enthusiast he was: his most widely quoted statements speak of correcting spontaneist tendencies, but Lih shows - by citing more neglected statements and texts - exactly how important spontaneity and individual energy was to him. Frederic Jameson's essay is characteristially liberal and pomo, while Eagleton punctures the myth that Lenin's vanguardism is elitist and authoritarian. Bensaid's contribution is a reprint from International Socialism and can be read here. There are a whole swathe of excellent contributions that I can't really do a proper service to here, but it's worth having a look at. At the very least, if you fancy overthrowing the ruling class and replacing it with a revolutionary government of workers councils, or even if you simply want to realise what it means to think through alternatives to capitalism, and why the twentieth century was one of war and revolution, you need to engage with Lenin's legacy.