Friday, December 14, 2012

Lenin Revisited

"Lenin" is not the nostalgic name for an old dogmatic certainty;  quite the contrary, the Lenin who is to be retrieved is the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which the old co-ordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to reinvent Marxism"  Slavoj Zizek

" revolutionary times the limits of what is possible expand a thousandfold." Lenin.

"Do the masses of the Russian workers possess sufficient class-consciousness, fortitude, and heroism to perform "miracles of proletarian organization" after they have performed miracles of daring, initiative, and self-sacrifice in the direct revolutionary struggle."  Lenin.

" performed miracles of proletarian heroism yesterday in overthrowing the tsarist monarchy."  Lenin.

"I would call this raving had not decades of political struggle taught me to regard honesty in opponents as a rare exception." Lenin

"Let us not forget that the issue of power is the fundamental issue at stake in every revolution."  Lenin

Dostoevsky once wrote in his Diary of a Writer:  "Try to pose for yourself this task:  not to think of a polar bear--and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute."   I think the opposite is also true:  try to think of the Revolution and everything but the Revolution will come to mind.  This is my excuse for straying so frequently, and so far, from the ostensible subject of this blog.  But today let me reflect on the fountainhead of the Russian revolutionary project, V.I. Lenin.  What kind of man was Lenin?  Like most great men and women of the past, one could spend a lifetime reading his biographies and never get a fixed image of the man.  Was he good or evil?  Was he exceptionally gifted or a product of his times?   Did he predict events better than other people?  Was he capable of shaping events or merely react to them?  Was he better or worse than his Bolshevik peers?  How responsible was he for Stalinism?

Fortunately, Lenin has left us a treasure trove of writing so we can at least return to primary sources to get a sense of how he thought about revolution before it had become monumentalized, or at least a sense of what he wanted other people to think he thought about it.  In fact, Lenin left us so much writing that it's hard to know where to begin.  But why not begin, as Slavoj Zizek begins in Revolution at the Gates:  Selected Writings from 1917, on the very eve of the first revolution of 1917, the February Revolution?  What was Lenin saying then, before he had become the chief spokesperson of a new government, and a political institution?  What did he say before he had any clue what would ultimately become of Russian socialism?

When one reads Zizek's selection of writings one is struck by the moral dichotomy of Lenin.  For clearly the framework of Marxism had allowed him to understand Russia's participation in the First World War with some degree of historical detachment.  Lenin's belief that the global conflagration was the inevitable consequence of bourgeois imperialism may not have been, strictly speaking, correct.  However, Lenin's Marxist perspective did allow him to see that the great conflict wasn't helping ordinary Russians, and not even Russian control of the Black Sea Straits--one secret goal of the war--would change that simple fact.  Lenin's refusal to choose sides in the First World War speaks to the central paradox of his approach to morality.  Lenin got the First World War right because he believed that moral decisions could only be decided with reference to long historical processes, especially as these related to the rise of the proletarian class.  This big perspective had its advantages.  One sees quite clearly that Lenin's support for peace and radical land reform were, historically speaking, correct.  On the other hand, we know that Lenin's detachment from ordinary politics led to authoritarian policies and devastatingly cruel decisions.

Lenin's writings also reveal his remarkable ability to demonstrate certainty about the future in the midst of political chaos.   Revolutionary Russia was a chaotic place, but Lenin's uncertainty only applied to tactics, which he was willing to change as circumstances changed.  On the big questions, Lenin didn't waver.  He knew Tsarism was bankrupt, that the Provisional Government was scarcely any better, and that even fellow socialists were unable to grasp the real historical logic of Marxism.   Lenin's writings are highly polemical.  In each letter or broadside the Bolshevik leader mocks his opponents unceasingly.  Lenin's opinion of anything that smacks of bourgeois influence is brutal.

It's interesting to compare Lenin's antipathy for bourgeois with the antipathy French revolutionaries expressed toward their political and even perceived social opponents. In the Price of Liberty, historian Donald Sutherland spends a great deal of time discussing conspiracy theories among French revolutionaries.  In that great upheaval, revolutionaries turned to violence at multiple stages in order to solve political problems.  They did so for several reasons apparently.  First, revolutionaries believed that the ancien regime, and specifically the king, had always used arbitrary power to solve problems.  If the king had been able to use violence to solve problems, why shouldn't the sovereign people do the same? After all, the people had a hundred times more political legitimacy than a king.  Second, revolutionaries, believing that their political settlement was invisible insofar as it had been established by the whole nation, could only conceive of defeat as a consequence of perfidy from within.  With this mindset, the French radicals attacked their enemies viciously, even condoning mob violence.  If perceived enemies perished without a trial, so be it.  The forms of justice were less important than the results.

Lenin's unflinching attacks against not only bourgeois politicians, but against those socialist politicians who could be seen as collaborating with the bourgeois ones, is redolent of the spirit of 1789, or at least 1792.   This shouldn't surprise us.  We know that Lenin, like Marx and all students of revolution, studied the French Revolution.  And if one studies the French Revolution, and accepts it as something that did more good for humanity than harm, it's hard to totally disavow violence.  The French Revolution had various phases, but violence underpinned most of these phases.  The king was killed, the queen was killed, aristocrats were murdered, peasant counterrevolution was suppressed, armies were defeated, and suspected agents of counterrevolution were guillotined.  Lenin, like most revolutionary thinkers, must have thought long and hard about the violence inherent in revolution well before 1917.  In fact, both the Provisional Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution were surprisingly bloodless.  With relatively few causalities, Lenin in power might well have wondered if he gotten revolution right.  A true revolution needs enemies it would seem.

At any rate, Lenin's writings reveal a man who believes that revolution is a social phenomenon which is inherently just, and which, paradoxically, remains both open-ended and predictable.  True revolutionaries know that revolution follows certain historical patterns first outlined by Karl Marx.  True revolutionaries side without reservation on the side of revolution, and true revolution is always radical, violent, and anti- accommodationist.

No comments:

Post a Comment