Shedding some light on Lenin

Issue: 116

Chris Harman

Sebastian Budgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Zizek (eds), Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth (Duke University, 2007), £12.99

“The name ‘Lenin’ is of urgent necessity for us precisely now, at a time when very few people seriously consider possible alternatives to capitalism any longer.” So write the editors, explaining the purpose of this book in their introduction, and it is a very laudable purpose. As they point out, “Marx is already something of an academic fashion”, but it is Marx torn away from any project for changing the world. Such a project requires a return to the activist political tradition that Lenin embodies.

A sense of what this should mean is contained in the essays by Daniel Bensaïd, Alex Callinicos and Alan Shandro. Terry Eagleton provides a very lucid defence of Lenin against those influenced by postmodernism, even if he does suggest that “the Bolsheviks were simply too fearful to trust the working class”, without providing evidence for this assertion. The pieces on Lenin and philosophy by Savas Michael-Matsas, Kevin B Anderson and Stathis Kouvelakis spell out the importance of Lenin’s rereading of the philosopher Hegel in the months after the outbreak of the First World War.

It cannot, however, be said that most of the other essays in this book fulfil such an aim. As with so many papers that originate in academic conferences, we have different writers stating their positions with virtually no engagement with each other. There emerge many different versions of what Lenin stood for, how he operated politically and his relevance today. And some of the “star” contributors assert things which are either false or sheer nonsense.

So Alain Badiou (who is also something of “an academic fashion” in some circles today) portrays Lenin as the forerunner of the Mao of the “cultural revolution”—the top-down mobilisation of school students against intellectuals, workers and state administrators alike, which deliberately left the military structure of the state untouched. Antonio Negri claims that “the biopolitics of Lenin” (whatever that might mean) are “embodied in the new contradictions of beyond Lenin” in a world in which “there is no longer a working class”. Sylvain Lazarus combines praise for what Lenin stood for in his own time with phrases such as “revolution was a category that was rendered obsolete in 1968” and “classism died in 1968”.

Such a divergence of opinion would not matter if the writers confronted each other, thus allowing the reader to follow a developing argument and weigh up the different positions. But this does not happen (except in one case, when Alex Callinicos rightly challenges Zizek’s “decisionism” with its cavalier talk of the necessity of doing “ugly things” in order to change the world). So one writer can assert Lenin’s philosophy was the direct opposite of that of the French Stalinist Louis Althusser, while another can assert a direct continuity; one can praise Nikolai Bukharin’s theory of imperialism as more relevant today than Lenin’s and another can assert the opposite. Like ships that pass each other in a fog, there is no recognition by one position of the other, or of the need to argue out the points. You pays your money and you takes your choice as to which Lenin you get.

Far too many of the pieces overdose on academic language that obscures what the authors might be trying to say, and on occasions degenerates into gibberish. So from Badiou we get: “One can almost say in this sense that the century of the Two is animated by the radical desire of the One”; from Zizek: “Its elements are purely formal, transcendental, not ontic” (a word not to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary); from Lazarus: “The material of the event character then becomes that of a politics, and a singular politics at that, which is no longer just an overthrow in the order of the state but consists only of effects.”

Untranslated words in French, German or Greek are repeatedly used in texts, as if the more difficult a piece is for the reader to understand, the more profound it must be. (In my experience the opposite is nearly always the case.) Finally, there is a tendency—present in the essays by Badiou, Zizek and Jameson—to try to import into Marxism’s attempt at a scientific understanding of reality the unproven contentions of rival schools of psychoanalysis.

Reading such stuff I couldn’t help recalling Marx and Engels’ diatribe in the Communist Manifesto about “the philosophical nonsense” of “the German literati” which “completely emasculated” the criticisms of capitalism by French socialists. Few writers have been as dedicated to expressing ideas clearly as Lenin—and few have had so little time for fashionable academic language. His generally favourable marginal notes to Bukharin’s Economics of the Transformation Period, for instance, are scathing about importing the language of academic sociology into Marxism, and he complains at the use of foreign language, so making it difficult for workers to read the text.

Academic obscurantism is not just an annoyance. It is a positive hindrance to achieving clarity on important questions. In the hands of Badiou it is used to try to assimilate Lenin to the exultation of violence for its own sake. “Extreme violence,” he writes, “is the reciprocal correlative of extreme enthusiasm since what is at stake is, indeed, to talk like Nietzsche, the transvaluation of values”. Such may be the attitude of the middle class intellectual frustrated by the alienation of bourgeois society, as it was of a French author of a century ago, Georges Sorel, whose “myth” inspired fascists as well as some on the left. It was not the attitude of Lenin, for whom the use of force was sometimes a necessity but certainly not a virtue.

In the hands of Zizek the clever turn of phrase substitutes for a clear examination of concrete developments. So he writes of the “historical necessity” of a “Stalinist outcome” to the Russian Revolution, as if this pre-empts the need to examine the very real struggles that occurred. Even worse, he claims that “mere insistence on multicultural openness is the most perfidious form of anti-workers’ class struggle”—as if the defence of multiculturalism is merely the concern of the middle class, rather than a precondition for the modern, multiethnic working class to achieve unity.

Badiou, Zizek and Negri have a big following in certain academic circles that are recovering from postmodernist hangovers. The aim with this book was to use their prestige as bait to get people interested in Lenin. But my fear is that, left to its own devices, bad academic Marxism can drive out good, scientific, activist Marxism. This book would have been much more useful if it contained polemics with such people, rather than simply printing their stuff without comment. A reloaded Lenin would not have let them go unchallenged.