Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Return of Lenin

Studying the Russian Revolution has rarely led me to examine current debates among the "New Leftists."  Those debates have ordinarily struck me as either esoteric (even by the lax standards of this unread blog) or morally abtuse (after all, both Stalinism and the collapse of planned economies can't be lightly dismissed).  Reading Lenin Reloaded:  Toward a Politics of Truth convinces me that this has been a mistake on my part for two reasons:  first, by embracing many of Bolshevism's core values, the New Leftists help contemporary historians to get a better feel for the now ostensibly discredited values of the Revolution;  and second, the New Leftists continue to say highly original and remarkably productive things about the Revolution and its main architects.  Right or wrong, today's generation of Marxists give one a lot to consider about the Revolution.  Indeed, if the essays in Lenin Reloaded are any guide, their current debates about Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky are anything but sterile.  Of course, some modern Marxists are more thoughtful than others, but certainly Lenin Reloaded employs more than a few of best of them, including Zizek and Eagelton.

The book's essayists advance diverse arguments about the legacy of Lenin and, by extension, the Revolution.  But perhaps the overriding argument is this:  Lenin was too great a thinker, and too important a thinker to too many other serious thinkers, to be discarded altogether.  The authors' other claim about Lenin, that he can't really be blamed for the excesses of either the Revolution or, more especially, its statist legacy, aren't really convincing.  In fact, whatever the reason, the authors don't spend much time refuting the notion that Lenin can in any way be blamed for Stalinism.

What makes Lenin a great thinker, worthy of continued study?  Most of the essayists remind us that Lenin got a lot right.  He was rightly a serious critic of Tsarism, anti-semitism, colonialism, nationalism, and globalized warfare, to say nothing about his critique of capitalism.  Most also note that Lenin had a tremendous talent for operationalizing theory, or indeed for theorizing operations.  What they mean, is that Lenin adjusted theory according to experience, and used theory to open up a space in which actual and substantive change finally became possible.

The whole point of the New Leftism of course is that Lenin, or at least his immediate interpreters, didn't get everything right.  But reviewing this rich collection of essays, all of which analyze mistakes in the light of what they take to be a very valid project, sheds an immense amount of light on the whole subject of revolution.  If we take it to be no more than a bloody pathway to the gulag, we miss something vital about the aspirations of millions of people who then, as now, are searching for something better than the everyday barbarism we so often accept as our inescapable reality.   Do we have to be perpetually at war in the Middle East?  Is it necessary for Africa to be impoverished?  Is radical income disparity in the United States and a racialized prison system unavoidable?  Lenin the quintessential revolutionary might have argued otherwise.  More than that, he might have tried to do something about the sad situation.  

Alain Badiou, "One Divides Itself Into Two." 

"Extreme violence is, therefore, the reciprocal correlative of extreme enthusiasm, since what is at stake is indeed, to talk like Nietzsche, the transvaluation of all values."

"The century is lived as the century of victories, after the millennium of attempts and failures."

"For a revolutionary, the world is an ancient world full of corruption and treachery.  One has constantly to start again with purification, with disclosing the real under its veils."

"What is new?  This is the obsession of the century."

"The new man is either restored or his is produced."

"...the new man..resists all categorization and characterization.  In particular he resists the family, private property, and the nation-state."

"Marx..stresses that the universal singularity of the proletariat is to resist categorization, to have no characteristics, and, in particular, in the strongest sense, to have no particular nationality."

Citing Gide:  "To all families, I hate you!"

Alex Callinicos, "Leninism in the Twenty-First Century?  Lenin, Weber, and the Politics of Responsibility."

Citing Lenin:  "There are no miracles in nature or in history, but every abrupt turn in history, and this applies to every revolution, presents such a wealth of content, unfolds such unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignments of forces and contestants, that to the lay mind there is much that much appear miraculous."

"History, as Hegel argues in his dialectic of master and slave, is a struggle to the death:  the institutionalized violence of class society can only be removed through revolutionary violence."

Terry Eagelton, "Lenin in the Postmodern Age."

"Yet both literature and revolution are of course art forms.."

"Anyone can revolt, but not everyone can carry through a successful revolution."

Fredric Jameson, "Lenin and Revisionism."

"Lenin does not know he is dead."

" is for one thing allegorically improper for a collective movement to be represented by a single named human individual."

Francois Furet, "Leaps, Leaps, Leaps."

Citing Furet:  "The idea of another society has become almost impossible to conceive of, and no one in the world today is offering any advice on the subject."

"Be ready for the improbable, for the unexpected, for what happens."

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