Come back Ilyich, all is forgiven

In Issue 20 (November 2004) Joe Conroy reviewed an assessment of Lenin’s politics in 1917.

V I Lenin, Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917, edited and with an Introduction and Afterword by Slavoj Žižek (Verso)

Karl Marx is almost accepted in polite society these days. Guardian journalists write books about him and conclude that he was a decent old stick after all. But Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: he’s a different proposition. You can draw a picture of Marx—albeit a profoundly false one—scribbling away for himself in the British Museum, harmlessly working on his eccentric theories. But playing down actual involvement with revolutionary activity is virtually impossible in the case of Lenin, what with 1917 and all that. If the fact that “Marx was before all else a revolutionist” got covered up not long after Friedrich Engels said so at his graveside, Lenin has always, as György Lukács put it, symbolised “the actuality of the revolution”.

So you have to admire an academic who writes a book arguing that Lenin is far from a discredited dead dog, but a figure to learn from. Although the title page describes this as a selection of Lenin edited by Slavoj Žižek, there’s far more Žižek than Lenin. The cover of this edition (the hardback came out two years ago) is adorned with pictures of both men, and “Žižek on Lenin” is the most prominent legend. Žižek’s contrib­ution to the book is easily longer than Lenin’s. His mammoth afterword ‘Lenin’s Choice’ often has little to do with Lenin at all. When he asks “So where is Lenin in all this?” (p 292) it reminds you that he has wandered off the point for a hundred pages or so. Some of these ramblings are interesting ramblings, but they don’t really butter any parsnips as far as Lenin is concerned.

His selection of Lenin’s writings needs to be argued with. While he writes that “It is impossible to overestimate the explosive potential of The State and Revolution” (p 5), it’s not possible to estimate it at all when he decided not to include this, the best thing Lenin ever wrote. If consider­ations of space were at play here, some of his own musings could have made way for it. The pamphlet Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? has more right to be in there than some of what has been included. New translations would have been preferable to the Collected Works renderings, complete with the dull Muscovite footnotes that give you too much information on the ideological trend of some forgotten Russian periodical or other.

The predominant feature of Lenin in 1917 is his determination to seize the time, to take the opportunity to seriously go for all-out revolution. Others on the left, he wrote, “picture socialism as some remote, unknown and dim future”, unable to see the chance of realising that future in the present, when “socialism is now gazing at us from all the windows” (p 100). Against these, not to mention a considerable wing of the Bolshevik leader­ship, he insisted that unless the workers took over, the Tsarist generals would establish a dictatorship, and the working class internationally would be left in the lurch: “History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now” (p 116).

But this was no solo run, with the revolution emerging from Lenin’s bald head:

Indispensable as Lenin’s personal intervention was, however, we should not change the story of the October Revolution into the story of the lone genius confronted with the disorientated masses and gradually imposing his vision. Lenin succeeded because his appeal, while bypassing the Party nomenklatura, found an echo in what I am tempted to call revolutionary micropolitics: the incredible explosion of grass-roots democracy, of local committees sprouting up all around Russia’s big cities and, ignoring the authority of the “legitimate” government, taking matters into their own hands. This is the untold story of the October Revolution, the obverse of the myth of the tiny group of ruthless dedicated revolutionaries which accomplished a coup d’état.

p 6-7

Lenin spent much of 1917 trying to convince socialists that the workers knew better than they did, telling them they should listen

for the initiative of the revolutionary people to begin expressing itself as something majestic, powerful and invincible.
Let all sceptics learn from this example from history.… Don’t be afraid of the people’s initiative and independence. Put your faith in their revolutionary organisations… Lack of faith in the people, fear of their initiative and independence, trepidation before their revolutionary energy instead of all-round and unqualified support for it—this is where the SR and Menshevik leaders have sinned most of all.

p 109-10

It wasn’t just the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks who needed convincing. The Bolshevik party and Lenin himself had to change course. Faith in popular initiative and independence was a radical break with Lenin’s earlier theory that socialist consciousness had to be imported into the working class from outside by the revolutionary party. Many of Lenin’s followers still haven’t made that break, continuing (as Žižek puts it) “to dream that Revolution is round the corner: all we need is the authentic leadership which would be able to organize the workers’ revolutionary potential”. We need to realise that “This mysterious working class whose revolutionary thrust is repeatedly thwarted… simply does not exist” (p 307‑8).

The working class has to draw its own conclusions and work out its own salvation. The arguments and proposals put to them are one—very important—factor in this, but the actual victories and defeats that workers go through teach lessons in themselves. Lenin always maintained that it was the concrete experience of the 1905 revolution that gave the Russian working class such a head start in 1917. The Bolshevik party that succeeded in 1917 wasn’t bringing socialism to the workers from outside: it had essentially fused with a working class that had set out upon a revolutionary road.

And this only happened after Lenin had fought for the Bolsheviks to abandon what had long been their defining standpoint, their interpretation of the nature of Russia’s revolution. They, and Lenin most of all, had always believed that it wouldn’t be a socialist revolution, only a radical capitalist one that would clear the way for socialist struggle. Not only did he now argue for this position to be dropped, he wanted socialists outside the party who had disagreed with it brought into the Bolshevik leadership. Imagine any of today’s far-left organisations ditching its definition of Stalinist Russia, and then inviting members of an opposing group to make up half of its central committee!

The transformation of the Bolshevik party in 1917 bears comparison with a similar process taking place in Ireland around the same time. Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin party had spent a decade advocating a dual monarchy: a self-governing Ireland linked with Britain by the one king. The 1916 rising was linked with Sinn Féin’s name despite the party’s lack of involvement with it. When the upsurge in republican sentiment later swept the country, thousands took over the existing Sinn Féin organisation and essentially changed its policy to a republican one. To some extent, the revolutionary workers of Russia did the same with the Bolshevik party, pressuring it to fit their own aspirations. By October Lenin could write: “the Bolsheviks, i.e., the representatives of revolutionary proletarian internationalism, have now embodied in their policy the idea which is motivating countless millions of toilers” (Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?).

Amidst today’s movements for global justice, Žižek sees a role for the party (p 296-7):

How do we invent the organizational structure which will confer on this unrest the form of the universal political demand? Otherwise, the momentum will be lost, and all that will remain will be marginal disturb­ances, perhaps organized like a new Greenpeace, with a certain efficiency, but also strictly limited goals, marketing strategy, and so on. In short, without the form of the Party, the movement remains caught in the vicious cycle of “resistance”… the last thing we want is the domestication of anti-globalization into just another “site of resistance” against capitalism.

He has a point here. The various aspects of capitalism can’t be overcome in splendid isolation: a broad, generalised assault on the system as such is needed. And like any form of political activity, that assault will need to organise itself as effectively as possible.

But, firstly, building a movement to get rid of capitalism is not all—or even mainly—a matter of organisation. The desire to have such a move­ment, and the belief in its practical possibility, will have to take shape first, and that comes down to political argument and experience before it comes down to taking organisational form. Secondly, if we “invent the organiz­ational structure”, it is unlikely to resemble previous structures, least of all “the form of the Party” with or without a capital P. The horrible experience of “the Party”—Stalinist, Trotskyist or otherwise—has discredited the name so much that we need to find another name for what we want. As Lenin wrote in 1917, when calling on socialists to abandon the name ‘social democrat’, “it is time to cast off the soiled shirt and to put on clean linen” (The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution).

The Lenin of 1917 is not all of Lenin: there is a Before and an After. Up to a few years before, he had more often than not been an advocate of elitist and arrogant party-building, of a workers’ revolution that would shrink from taking a socialist direction, of a deadeningly static interpretation of Marxist philosophy. A few years after, he was more often than not an advocate of party dictatorship, of compulsory obedience to the party line, of reducing socialism to featureless economic construction.

But the honeymoon period in between was something else. In 1914 the international socialist movement collapsed as war engulfed Europe. Lenin’s response was to go back and rediscover the emancipatory heart of Marxist thought, to discern the revolutionary possibilities created by capitalism at its height. Lenin was a new man by 1917, someone determined not to let the prospect of socialism slip by.

This is the Lenin from whom we still have something to learn.… The idea is not to return to Lenin, but to repeat him in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation. The return to Lenin aims neither at nostalgically re-enacting the “good old revolu­tionary times”, nor at an opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old programme to “new conditions”, but at repeating, in the present world­wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of reinventing the revolution­ary project…

p 6,11

Half the power of Lenin, says Žižek, is in the name, “the extent to which the signifier ‘Lenin’ retains its subversive edge” (p 312). That name stands for the harsh reality of revolution in flesh and blood, which is why it still enjoys the contempt of the intellectual prizefighters for the powers that be. Even people committed to overthrowing those powers are ignorant of Lenin’s revolutionary inspiration, his commitment in 1917 to win a world without classes or states, a socialism where “all will govern in turn and soon become accustomed to no one governing” (The State and Revolution). If the things this Lenin stood for are the same things we stand for, we would be mad to spurn his help in the fight.