June/July/Aug 2007

Red State

Scott McLemee on Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Slavoj Zizek’s Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth

Scott McLemee


In 1896, in a text that anticipated Borges’s merger of the essay and the short story, Paul ValÚry introduced readers to a character he called Monsieur Teste. This was the modernist hero as creature of pure intellect, capable of an almost inhuman intensity of self-conscious lucidity. Through a “frightening discipline,” M. Teste had “[set] his pleasures to killing his pleasures.” He had not withdrawn from social life entirely. But while living in the world, he was not of it—a mind preparing itself to tear up everything and begin anew. “What,” asks the puzzled narrator, “had he done with his personality?”

This strange figure was a symbolist myth, not a socialist revolutionary. ValÚry could not have had Lenin in mind when portraying M. Teste. Yet there is some resemblance. Both arrive on the public stage at roughly the same time, with the sketch of M. Teste appearing in a Parisian literary magazine as the Russian was publishing his first exercises in Marxist polemic. The oft-repeated story about Lenin’s refusal to indulge in the pleasure of listening to Beethoven has as its prototype M. Teste’s asceticism. ValÚry says that he “becomes his own system.” Just so with Lenin, albeit through a severe defense and purification of Marx’s revolutionary dialectic—an effort serving to generate a formidably impersonal quality of authority. The ex-Communist historian Bertram Wolfe once referred to Lenin as a “selfless egoist,” a paradox that applies no less to ValÚry’s alter ego.

But the historical figure, unlike the fictive character, was a mortal being, which made for an especially ironic postscript. The mind died. Its dialectic froze into a doctrine. And the body? It was embalmed and put on display, creating a fetish imbued with an aura of premodern power that Lenin, who discouraged monuments to himself during his lifetime, would have found disgusting. Under glass, it functioned for decades as a kind of abject parody of the medieval notion of “the king’s two bodies”—the world-conquering dynamic of proletarian revolution being anchored, somehow, in the magical materialism of an uncorrupted corpse (one that outlasted the regime it once legitimated).

So what are we to make, then, of Lenin Reloaded? Most of the seventeen essays collected here were originally presented at “Toward a Politics of Truth: The Retrieval of Lenin,” a conference organized by Slavoj Zizek in Germany six years ago. As such, the volume forms a kind of supplement to Revolution at the Gates (Verso, 2002), the edition of Lenin’s writings from 1917 to which Zizek contributed a long postscript. That volume was itself something of a curiosity, at least for those of us who had cut our teeth on an edition of the same texts called Between the Two Revolutions, once available from Progress, the Soviet imprint, for a pittance.

Warehouses’ worth of Lenin must have been pulped during the 1990s, during what the introduction to Reloaded calls “an epoch dominated by the ‘post-political consensus.’” In his afterword from 2002, Zizek announces “the ‘Leninist’ point on which one cannot and should not concede: today, actual freedom of thought means freedom to question the prevailing liberaldemocratic ‘post-ideological’ consensus— or it means nothing.”

But one would be naive indeed to assume that this “Leninist” gesture (to use Zizek’s own scare quotes) necessarily means a return to the days of the factory cell and the combat party. “In principle, of course, one should be indifferent to the struggle between the liberal and conservative poles of today’s official politics,” wrote Zizek five years ago; “however, one can only afford to be indifferent if the liberal option is in power.” Where dissidents during the Prague Spring called for “socialism with a human face,” Zizek’s rather Laibach-like role as the badass apparatchik from some imaginary police state has seldom amounted to much more than the Third Way with an inhuman face.

Not that the contributors to Lenin Reloaded form a united front with Zizek on that. The table of contents here is hardly an instance of the Bolshevik imperative to draw hard “lines of demarcation” between radical tendencies. The mixture of voices makes for a stimulating anthology—albeit one that Lenin would have considered “a Menshevik talk shop.”

Jean-Jacques Lecercle says that he “decided at the age of sixteen that I was a Communist” and that he hasn’t felt obliged, “in spite of the vicissitudes of history, to change my mind on that point.” A few others write in a vein that, to a trained eye, suggests they probably once defended the “actually existing Socialism” of the Brezhnev era. Most flavors of heterodoxy are represented. Alex Callinicos, Terry Eagleton, and Daniel Bensa´d come from more or less Trotskyist backgrounds. Alain Badiou and Sylvain Lazarus are members of l’Organisation Politique, the post-Maoist nonparty; they remain inspired by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution without holding their breath for its return. Antonio Negri and Kevin Anderson represent varieties of extraparliamentary spontaneism— a perspective that, in practice, can be distinguished from anarchism only with considerable effort.

Meanwhile, on what might be called the book’s right flank, Fredric Jameson warns against imitating “Lenin’s divisive, aggressive, sectarian recommendations for tactics” but also calls for “a strategy that consists in tirelessly underscoring the difference between systemic and piecemeal goals.” (Evidently, he considers this strategy more or less Bolshevik, despite the fact that every revisionist of Lenin’s day was quite clear on the distinction.) Jameson denounces social democracy as moribund but also calls for defense of the welfare state.

One need not call this inconsistent, or incoherent, or the self-delusion of a self-hating reformist, or anything of the kind. One need only point out that dialectics is a wonderful science and that we can always hope for the best. The belief that social-democratic reformists should be supported, in Lenin’s vivid phrase, “the same way as the rope supports a hanged man” was perhaps credible in 1920. But at this point, any serious defense of whatever remains of the welfare state (let alone any real effort to place a check on global capital, however minimal) will require the efforts of people who see “piecemeal goals” as terrifically important in themselves.

The quality of the discourse in this talk shop is quite uneven. Particularly disconcerting is the statement, in the introduction, that What Is to Be Done? is “the work in which Lenin’s unique voice was for the first time clearly heard.” Several contributors repeat variations on that idea, which belongs to the doxa shared by both catechistic Marxism- Leninism and cold war–style Sovietology.

That it should be recycled now—gussied up as a bracing insight with applications to this post-postideological age—is discouraging. There is really nothing original about Lenin’s pamphlet of 1902. As Neil Harding shows in his incisive study Leninism (1996), it did little beyond trying to adapt the German model of a professionally run Socialist Party to the specific conditions of the Russian labor movement. One of the best papers in the present volume, Lars T. Lih’s “Lenin and the Great Awakening,” takes this as a given and demonstrates that Lenin’s fellow Bolsheviks were curiously oblivious to the presumed centrality of WITBD?

Rather, it was only with the outbreak of World War I, and the near-total capitulation of the parties in the International to their respective governments, that any body of ideas distinctive enough to be called Leninism came into being. It was in late 1914 and early 1915, the first few months of the war, that Lenin had perhaps his most M. Teste–like moment, retreating to a library to study Hegel’s Science of Logic.

This episode—long neglected by Leninologists and perhaps looking to the unsympathetic observer like evidence of a nervous breakdown—is the subject of four searching papers in this collection. The richest is “Lenin as a Reader of Hegel” by Stathis Kouvelakis, one of the editors. It might also be the best place to start reading, as it serves to place even the weakest texts here in an illuminating perspective.

Unfortunately, there is a rather enormous gap in the book. No paper discusses, except in the most perfunctory way, the reality of Leninism in power—the maneuvers, the compromises, the brutalities, the counsel on strategy and tactics offered in 1920’s Left- Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (a work never even mentioned here). That silence is perhaps symptomatic of how little the “reloaded” Lenin has to do with the less virtual realms of political practice.

Scott McLemee is a columnist at insidehighered.com.

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