Monday, July 29, 2002
: . Lenin for Our Time:
From Seize the day: Lenin's legacy by the controversial and freakishly prolific Lacanian Marxist (!) Slavoj Zizek:
- In 1914, an entire world disappeared, taking with it not only the bourgeois faith in progress, but the socialist movement that accompanied it. Lenin (the Lenin of What Is to Be Done?) felt the ground fall away from beneath his feet - there was, in his desperate reaction, no sense of satisfaction, no desire to say "I told you so." At the same time, the catastrophe made possible the key Leninist Event: the overcoming of the evolutionary historicism of the Second International. The kernel of the Leninist 'utopia' - the radical imperative to smash the bourgeois state and invent a new communal social form without a standing army, police force or bureaucracy, in which all could take part in the administration of social matters - arises directly from the ashes of 1914. It wasn't a theoretical project for some distant future: in October 1917, Lenin claimed that "we can at once set in motion a state apparatus consisting of 10 if not 20 million people." What we should recognise is the 'madness' (in the Kierkegaardian sense) of this utopia - in this context, Stalinism stands for a return to 'common sense'…
In his writings of 1917, Lenin saves his most acerbic irony for those who engage in a vain search for some kind of guarantee for the revolution, either in the guise of a reified notion of social necessity ("it's too early for the socialist revolution, the working class isn't yet mature"), or of a normative, democratic legitimacy ("the majority of the population isn't on our side, so the revolution would not really be democratic"). It is as if the revolutionary agent requires the permission of some representative of the Other before he risks seizing state power. For Lenin, as for Lacan, the revolution 'ne s'autorise que d'elle-même'. The wariness of taking power prematurely, the search for a guarantee, is an expression of fear before the abyss. This is what Lenin repeatedly denounces as "opportunism": an inherently false position which hides fear behind a protective screen of supposedly objective facts, laws or norms. The first step in combatting it is to announce clearly: "What, then, is to be done? We must aussprechen was ist, 'state the facts', admit the truth that there is a tendency, or an opinion, in our central committee..."
…We have, then, two incompatible models of the revolution: to wait for the moment of the final crisis, when revolution will explode "at its own proper time" according to the necessity of historical evolution; or to assert that revolution has no "proper time", that the opportunity for it is something that emerges and has to be seized. Lenin insists that the extraordinary set of circumstances, like those in Russia in 1917, can provide a way to undermine the norm itself. I would argue that this belief is more persuasive today than ever. We live in an era when the state and its apparatuses, including its political agents, are less and less able to articulate key issues. The illusion that the pressing problems facing Russia in 1917 (peace, land distribution etc) could have been solved through parliamentary means is in effect the same as today's illusion that the ecological threat can be avoided by applying market logic (making polluters pay for the damage they cause)…
Other elements of Lenin's breakthrough retain their force today: his critique of "Leftism as the Child Illness of Communism", for example, and his stance against economism. He was aware that political "extremism" or "excessive radicalism" should always be understood as evidence of an ideologico-political displacement, indicating the limitations on what it was possible actually to achieve. The Jacobins' recourse to the Terror was a hysterical acting out, evidence of their inability to disturb the fundamentals of the economic order (private property etc). Today's 'excesses' of political correctness similarly reveal an inability to overcome the actual causes of racism and sexism. Perhaps the time has come to question the belief held by many modern leftists that political totalitarianism somehow results from the predominance of material production and technology over human relations and culture. What if the exact opposite is the case? What if political 'terror' signals precisely that the sphere of material production has been subordinated to politics? Perhaps, in fact, all political 'terror', from the Jacobins to the Maoist Cultural Revolution, presupposes the displacement of production onto the terrain of political battle.
Lenin's opposition to economism is crucial today, given the divided views held on economic matters in (what remains of) radical circles: on the one hand, politicians have abandoned the economy as the site of struggle and intervention; on the other, economists, fascinated by the functioning of today's global economy, preclude any possibility of political intervention. We seem to need Lenin's insights more than ever: yes, the economy is the key domain - the battle will be decided there; one has to break the spell of global capitalism - but the intervention should be properly political, not economic. Today, when everyone is anti-capitalist - even in Hollywood, where several conspiracy movies (from Enemy of the State to The Insider) have recently been produced in which the enemy is the big corporation and its ruthless pursuit of profit - the label has lost its subversive sting.
In the end, the universal appeal to freedom and democracy, the belief that they will save us from the abuses of capitalism, will have to be challenged. Liberal democracy, in truth, is the political arrangement under which capital thrives best. This is Lenin's ultimate lesson: it is only by throwing off our attachment to liberal democracy, which cannot survive without private property, that we can become effectively anti-capitalist. The disintegration of communism in 1990 confirmed the 'vulgar' Marxist thesis that the economic base of political democracy is the private ownership of the means of production - that is, capitalism with its attendant class distinctions. The first urge after the introduction of political democracy was privatisation, the frantic effort to find - at any price, in whatever way - new owners for the property that had been nationalised when the communists took power: former apparatchiks, mafiosi, whoever, just to get a 'base' for democracy. But all this is taking place too late - at exactly the moment when, in the first world post-industrial societies, private ownership has started to lose its central regulating role.
John Berger recently wrote about a French advert for an internet broker called Selftrade. Under an image of a solid gold hammer and sickle studded with diamonds, the caption reads: "And if the stock market profited everybody?" The strategy is obvious: today, the stock market fulfils the egalitarian communist agenda - everybody can participate in it. Berger proposes a comparison: "Imagine a communications campaign today using an image of a swastika cast in solid gold and embedded with diamonds! It would, of course, not work. Why? The swastika addressed potential victors, not the defeated. It invoked domination not justice." In contrast, the hammer and sickle invokes the hope that "history would eventually be on the side of those struggling for fraternal justice". At the very moment this hope is proclaimed dead according to the hegemonic ideology of the "end of ideologies", a paradigmatic post-industrial enterprise (is there anything more post-industrial than dealing in stocks on the internet?) mobilises it once more. The hope continues to haunt us.
I suppose that a more extended treatment of Lenin's thought on revolution can be found in the introduction of Zizek's upcoming book Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917.
I have to admit that I am too dumbfounded by Zizek's work to even pretend to know how to critique it. I simply haven't read enough Marx or Lacan (who has?) or seen enough Hitchcock (Zizek loves to leaven his accessible yet dense metatheorizing with allusions to popular culture) to give an informed opinion. However, Lenin's claim that there is no "proper time" for revolution, brings to mind Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963):
- We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was "well timed" according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "wait." It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger" and your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodyness" -- then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.