In recent years Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has engaged in a rather interesting project: editing and introducing writings by great revolutionary leaders. In 2002 Revolution at the Gates, a collection of Lenin’s writings from 1917 (including the critical “April Theses”) was published. In 2007 writings by Robespierre, Trotsky, and Mao for Verso’s “Revolutions” series followed. The most recent offering is Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through.
Lenin 2017 is a collection of Lenin’s final writings. These are the writings which C.L.R. James urged study of in Facing Reality. Included is Lenin’s “Last Testament: Letters to Congress” where he denounces Stalin and urges his removal from power. Also part of this collection is “On Cooperation,” where Lenin argued the necessity for the formation of cooperatives in the U.S.S.R. Here he makes the stunning statement that “given social ownership of the means of production, given the class victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, the system of civilized cooperators is the system of socialism.” His definition of socialism is relevant to models of mixed economy and ‘feasible socialism’ as outlined by Alec Nove (himself no fan of Lenin) in The Economics of Feasible Socialism. The use of the term ‘social ownership’ meanwhile brings to mind proposals for a socialist alternative made by Pat Devine or Michael Lebowitz, proposals perhaps more in line with what Lenin spoke of in State and Revolution than what was actually enacted by the Bolsheviks.
The writings presented here by Zizek provide a corrective to the one-sided view of Lenin that has become standard since the fall of the Soviet Union. Zizek’s introduction and afterword approach are neither demonology nor hagiography. “Today the left is in a situation that uncannily resembles the one that gave birth to Leninism. This does not mean a return to Lenin. To repeat Lenin is to accept that Lenin is dead, that his particular solution failed, even failed monstrously. To repeat Lenin means that one has to distinguish between what Lenin actually did and the field of possibilities that he opened up, to acknowledge the tension in Lenin between his actions and another dimension, what was ‘in Lenin more than Lenin himself.’ To repeat Lenin is to repeat not what Lenin did, but what he failed to do, his missed opportunities.”
In Lenin: A Study of the Unity of his Thought, Georg Lukacs presented what Guy Debord has criticized as an imaginary portrait of Lenin. For Lukacs, an important innovation of Lenin was his ‘revolutionary realpolitik,’ his use of realistic political measures to achieve socialist advance. Zizek seems to be arguing that ‘revolutionary realpolitik’ is necessary for the left today, and needs to become a real political force. It can be argued that Lenin’s virtue was his willingness to break with what had become Marxist orthodoxy in order to advance socialism. What he perceived correctly was that the orthodoxy of rigid “stages of development” had itself become a fetter on political action. Another of Lenin’s virtues was his determination to advance the socialist cause even in conditions unfavorable to its success (when and where are real world conditions ever actually ideal?). Lenin was someone who accepted the possibility of socialist revolution in countries with a peasant majority, a heresy for the Marxists of his day. The concept of ‘hegemony’ particularly as elaborated by Gramsci, is a direct development of Lenin’s thought. Ironically, given Zizek’s long standing debate with Ernesto Laclau, one can argue that ‘repeating Lenin’ may actually imply the adoption of the populist political strategy that Laclau championed!
None of this is to overlook Lenin’s shortcomings. Indeed some of the writings in Lenin 2017 serve to reinforce the image of the ruthless dictator that he has been given. In his “Letter to G. Myasnikov” Lenin chastises him for his support for freedom of the press. Lenin correctly asks “ what sort of freedom of the press? What for? For which class?” However Lenin failed to foresee that the suppression of civil liberties he championed as a means of defending the revolution would in fact become what Sartre called a “counter-finality,” that is an action which has results counter to what was intended. It was precisely this that would become a major ideological weapon used against Marxist-Leninist regimes, hastening their downfall. While Lenin clearly opposed Stalin at the end of his life, Zizek notes that it was Lenin’s own attempt to ban factions in the party to suppress the worker’s opposition (arguably the biggest of Lenin’s ‘missed opportunities’) that set the stage for Stalin’s rise to power. He notes that when Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ denouncing Stalin, there was no attempt to examine the structural factors that allowed him to rule. Everything was presented as if it was simply the fault of Stalin’s bad character.
Of course a certain amount of what Zizek is trying to accomplish is sheer provocation. As this reviewer has pointed out in a previous review, Zizek is sometimes too clever for his own good. The clumsy commentary he has made recently about immigration, more aimed at bolstering his status, as “maverick,” rather than a serious contribution to political strategy, or even as a statement of his own actual policy stance, is a case in point. Even a philosopher can sometimes be stupid! Critically speaking though, many of the points he makes in Lenin 2017 are valid, and stand on their own merits.
Zizek’s project of ‘repeating’ revolutionary thinkers is a corrective to the depressed state the world-left has fallen into in recent decades. Having in the past supported Marxist-Leninist regimes whose actions tarnished the idea of socialism, the left has swung to the opposite extreme: fear and distrust of state power as a means to systemic change. At its ‘revolutionary’ pole this results in an anarchism that is at best a subculture without influence on the masses. While this leads occasionally to spectacular actions such as the ‘Battle in Seattle’ in 1999, or the more recent Occupy movement little of lasting result has been achieved. The most extreme ‘reformist’ pole is a combination of Neoliberalism with a pursuit of ‘identity politics’ at the expense of economic justice and democracy. The manifestations of this melancholy in left politics are myriad, and includes activism pursued as self-expression to fear of nationalization or utopian proposals as inherently totalitarian. Kojin Karatani, in his article “A Japanese Utopia” has raised the question of whether Kant’s idea of a federation of nations, and “Marxist thought are interconnected. Nevertheless they were considered irrelevant to each other and this led to the failure of these world-historical events” (the Bolshevik Revolution and the League of Nations). World government is one of the great bogeymen of the extreme right, yet how few on the left actually discuss, let alone support it? Has the left internalized the fears of the right? While the ideal of the withering-away of the state, as a long duration goal remains vital, in an era dominated by a right-wing ideology with its fetishism of ‘free markets’ and ‘small government’ fear of state power as a tool for socialist advance is only serving to reinforce inherently conservative political tendencies. The real danger is not that the world-left will simply remain unsuccessful while capitalist society goes on as before. Rather it is that a left that does not work through this condition will soon be faced with crises it is unprepared for, and will squander opportunities for socialist advance that will present themselves in coming decades. The financial crisis of 2008, and the subsequent legitimation crisis which continues to this day, should be a wake-up call.
One thing is sure, that the capitalist world-system cannot continue as before. Global warming, advancing automation, the urbanization of peasant masses, growing economic inequality, the decline of U.S. hegemony and the coming rise of China to economic dominance all threaten the continued stability of the system. In the United States there is a growing support for socialism, especially among younger people faced with bleak job opportunities and burdened with student debts. The Leninist party-state was a failure, yet it was Lenin who also pointed out that “it is not enough for revolution that the lower classes should not want to live in the old way. It is also necessary that the upper classes should be unable to rule and govern in the old way.” Today the capitalist world-system is approaching this point. The irony is that the decay of the capitalist order does not guarantee the success of a socialist alternative.
Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating and Working Through edited and introduced by Slavoj Zizek is a book which repays close reading. If Lenin’s virtue was to rethink Marxist orthodoxy in the service of socialist advance then the same thing should be done with Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. Recognizing that the situation is different, by pursuing the ‘Lenin beyond Lenin’ we may find a political way forward, or as Zizek, quoting Brecht for comic effect says, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ At the end of Lenin 2017, Zizek challenges his readers to ask ‘who are, or could be, today’s Lenin and Trotsky?” Perhaps the time has come for the world-left not simply disown their terror, but to imitate their virtues.
Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating and Working Through
Edited and Introduced by Slavoj Zizek
Verso Books 2017, London