Lenin conference

Charles Brown CharlesB at SPAMCNCL.ci.detroit.mi.us
Fri Feb 9 11:06:21 MST 2001

>>> jones.mark at btconnect.com 02/09/01 01:12PM >>>
While on the subject of running dogs changing their spots, has Comrade Henwood or
anyone else reported yet on the Slavoj Zizek conference?



Does it mean anything to be a Leninist in 2001?
Doug Henwood

(for the conference Towards a Politics of Truth: The Retrieval of
Lenin, Essen, Germany, Feburary 4, 2001)

Please forgive me for reading my contribution this way [from the
screen of a PowerBook]. It's not, I swear, a symptom of American
techno-fetishism; it's a symptom of having written this at the last
minute, having applied the last keystroke at precisely 9:34 this
morning, with no printer to transform electronic text into the
physical. Further proof, I guess, that we are all immaterial laborers
these days, so that even our texts are virtual -- though when I was
wandering around a couple of stories down yesterday afternoon, I was
amazed to see exhibits devoted to basic manufacturing technology.
Maybe this is just a bit of Old World quaintness, but actually I
think this whole immaterial thing is overdone. But that's another
topic entirely.

Further confessions of inadequacy. Another reason or two for last
minuteness, aside from neurotic procrastination, is that I felt
somewhat intimidated by the gathering -- a journalist, a vulgar
empiricist, amidst theoreticians, I wondered what really I had to
say. But it wasn't just a feeling of professional inadequacy. I was
asked to provide a title for this about two months ago; I chose the
question, "Does it mean anything to be a Leninist in 2001?" I really
had no idea of an answer then, but was convinced I'd come up with
something in the intervening eight weeks. I'm not sure I have, even
though most of this conference is now behind us.

One reason I picked the title is that over the years I've asked
self-identified Leninists for their definition, and I can't say I've
gotten a memorable answer yet -- one, that is, that isn't a mere
literal transposition of Lenin's own writings into the present, like
some case of ideological time travelling. I just don't see how much
of a revolutionary doctrine -- or a set of doctrines given Lenin's
flexibility (if you like him) or opportunism (if you don't) --
devised for a lightly industrialized, semiperipheral monarchy
afflicted by fairly strict censorship and a secret police is relevant
to highly industrialized metropoles where censorship and the police
operate in much more subtle, often unconscious ways.

I've heard some efforts at definition over the last couple of days.
One set of suggestions held that Lenin serves as a reminder of the
centrality of politics, the crucial importance of a good analysis,
and the indespensibility of The Party (capital P, I'm assuming). The
first two seem fairly obvious to me, and so general that Margaret
Thatcher or the people who thought for Ronald Reagan would have
assented to.

(Speaking of poltiical figures, I bring some news from the U.S.: we
have a new president, George W. Bush. In Washington, the Third Way is
history, to use our curiously American way of consigning something to
insignificance. He reads the Bible, not Anthony Giddens; thinks that
churches should replace the state as service provider to the poor;
and speaks only the language of national self-interest, not
humanitarianism, to justify imperial adventure.)

Back to Lenin's relevance. The last factor, the centrality of The
Party, just seems like a dead idea to me. Like it or not, the notion
of a vanguard party on the Leninist model, operating on
quasi-military principles of discipline and hierarchy, has less than
zero appeal to all but a handful of relics today. It is, I'm fairly
certain, beyond any hope of revival. To speak that language today to
an audience not already in basic sympathy to your program is to
condemn yourself to irrelevance.

So much for the Leninist style of politics. There is also the matter
of Lenin as icon, the successful revolutionary who keeps alive the
possibility of revolution today. I'm susceptible to this appeal; I
even have a picture of Lenin up in my kitchen. He is a great image,
there's no denying. But again, I doubt the breadth of that appeal.
The other week I asked a friend of mine who is a professor of English
at a major U.S. university, whose allegiance to Marxism has almost
certainly hurt his career, what he thought of Lenin. His answer was
that he was a philosophical cretin and a political gangster. I'm sure
almost everyone in this room would disagree with this
characterization -- but if you get this kind of response from a
Marxist intellectual, I'd say Lenin's image problem borders on the

I'm certainly not endorsing this view of Lenin, but in politics you
have to work with the hand you've been dealt, and Lenin's face isn't
even in the deck these days. A more possible project might be the
retrieval of Marx, a topic I'll return to a bit later. I have to
dissent from Slavoj Zizek's picture of the Old Man's growing
respectability, at least from my experience in the U.S. Aside from a
handful of universities, Marxism has disappeared from U.S. economics
departments. In fact, I know of only one Marxist who's been hired by
a major U.S. department in the last 20 years -- John Roemer by Yale,
and that was a joint appointment with political science, and it was
poli sci that was the driving force behind the hire. Yes, things are
a bit better in the humanities, but many of my friends in the Marxist
Literary Group have severe publication and employment problems. And
there are very few Marx-o-philes on Wall Street. I know of one
exception, though I think he's rather paranoid about having this be
known: Bruce Steinberg, the chief economist of Merrill Lynch.
Steinberg was on the editorial board of the Review of Radical
Pollitical Economics about 20 years ago, and has been heard saying
that his study of Marx helped him immensely. I strongly suspect he
was the unnamed Wall Streeter who was quoted in John Cassidy's
article on the Marx revival in The New Yorker in October 1997. But
that's about it. My own Marxist book on Wall Street -- though our
friends the Sparts will dispute its Marxism -- was received mainly
with silence by financiers, though the financial weekly Barron's
described it as "loopy" and "repellent," a member of the business
staff of the Los Angeles Times characterized it as mapping out the
road to the gulag (of course), and some years ago, the former
executive editor of the Wall Street Journal told me I am "sick and
twisted" and added that it's tragic that I exist. But that's Wall
Street. Cassidy's article in the New Yorker, the exuberant reception
for Verso's latte table edition of The Communist Manifesto (to steal
Alex Cockburn's characterization of it), and several other pieces in
the press suggest a broader willingness to listen to Marx, now that
memories of the USSR are fading and the moment of capitalist
triumphalism is starting to feel hollow, even false and forced.

Aside from media evidence, my own experience of talking to popular
audiences in the U.S. has been that people are quite willing to
listen to a Marxian analysis, especially if they don't know that's
what they're hearing -- and that younger audiences don't even have
any problem with the name. With Lenin's name, though, they most
certainly do.

OK, what about Lenin as a political analyst? The essay on imperialism
has come up a lot here, and it so happens that I just reacquainted
myself with it, after a long separation, to prepare for this
conference. It's certainly of great historical interest. But
unfortunately, too many self-identified Leninists take it and apply
it unmodified as an analytical template for today. That just won't
do. One very serious problem is the prominence of Hilferding's
analysis of finance capital, a book that has long afflicted Marxian
analyses of finance in general. First, let me start with the achingly
obvious: the era of high colonialism is over. Right now, Kautsky's
ultra-imperialism seems a like a not-bad characterization of the
world in the early 21st century, even if he was very wrong about the
early 20th century. Yes, there are contradictions in the system; yes,
there are rivalries among the major imperialist powers; yes, the
three metropoles, the U.S., the EU, and Japan, each have their own
geographic spheres of particular influence. But conceding all that,
it's amazing how peaceful the coexistence is among the imperial
powers. The members of the EU fought among themselves over who would
be the first head of the European Central Bank, but they ended up
with a nominee. The major powers fought over who would head the WTO
and the IMF, but they ended up with nominees. The U.S. is the major
investor in Latin America, but the EU is the major investor in Brazil
and Argentina, yet all parties pretty much get along. The U.S. is in
the process of economically annexing Mexico, but you'll find Sony and
Volkswagen plants operating happily there. Maybe this comity won't
last forever; maybe they will come to blows someday. After all,
Keynes wrote in The Economic Consequences of the Peace that an upper
class Londoner of around 1910, regarded the then-prevailing freedom
of trade and capital flows -- freer by many measures than the
present, I should add -- as "normal, certain, and permanent, except
in the direction of improvement, and any deviation from it as
aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of
militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of
monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the
serpent to this paradise, were litle more than the amusements of his
daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all
on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the
internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice." Maybe
there's a serpent waiting to pounce sometime in the future, but not
right now. Right now it sure looks like a truly global ruling class
is constituting itself through public institutions like the IMF and
private ones like the Davos World Economic Forums.

And then there's the stuff about cartels and banks. I often hear
self-described Leninists apply these concepts to the present with
almost no modification. The word "monopoly" is thrown around, as if
J.P. Morgan were still walking the earth. First, cartels. For the
last 20 years, it's been the policy of many governments around the
world to promote competition, though deregulation and the dismantling
of import barriers. The executive committee of the bourgeoisie
realized that the comfy world of the 1950s and 1960s, the one
described with some admiration by Galbraith and with considerable
hostility by Baran and Sweezy, had led to systemic sclerosis. Nor is
there any compelling evidence of a trend towards monopoly. A study of
20 industrial sectors published last summer in the Harvard Business
Review found increased concentration of market share in only one,
semiconductors. All others saw a decline or no change. It also found
that cross-border mergers imparted no competitive advantage on the
new entities, a result confirmed by other studies showing that
multinationals are no more profitable than domestic firms. To
complicate the picture even further, contrary to Lenin's assertion
that profits are higher in poor countries, data on U.S.
multinationals shows returns on Latin American investments to be
lower than those in Canada or Western Europe, and returns in Taiwan
to be higher than those in China. Moreover, over two-thirds of the
total stock of U.S. foreign direct investment is in countries with
incomes roughly comparable to the home country's. Throw in the four
classic Asian Tigers and you've got over three-quarters of the total.
I'm not sure what this all means theoretically, but it does suggest
that some serious rethinking of received wisdom -- received wisdom to
which Lenin's Imperialism contributed no small amount -- is in order.

And, as for the banks, well, to quote the Velvet Underground, those
were different times. Lenin, following Hilferding, declared that the
stock exchange was an institution in serious decline. It's not. In
the U.S., the power of stockholders has grown enormously over the
last 20 years, and other countries are following suit. One of the
vastly underappreciated aspects of the euro project is to create more
U.S.-style financial markets, and to weaken the hold of German-style
bank ownership. The point is to expose companies to the constant
public discipline of profit maximization. Lenin also said that
company accounts were getting incrasingly murky, in order to hide all
kinds of self-dealing and other financial chicanery. While there are
some exceptions, this is hardly an accurate description of the
present, when "transparency" is all the rage. Part of the IMF's
restructuring package for Asia involved the adoption of U.S.-style
accounting methods, meaning far more accurate public disclosure of
balance sheets and income statements. Stock market disciplines won't
work if the books are utterly fictional.

There's been a lot of talk about Hardt and Negri's Emipre over the
last couple of days. I've only begun to think about the book, but
there's a lot to think about in it. I think they overdo the assertion
that today's Empire has no Rome -- Washington, Wall Street, and
Hollywood are a lot more central to the structure than they allow --
but their point about the dispersion of power in the new order is
absolutely right, I think. Empire today is a much more collective and
dispersed affair than it was in Lenin's day, what with the UN and
NATO acting the part of imperial enforcers, and stock markets
arranging ownership and discipline. No the nation - state isn't dead
and yes financial power is still concentrated -- but too much
attention to Lenin will only confuse us.

OK, having doubted the relevance of Lenin for the last 2,000-some
words, I'll now invoke the cliched Leninist question -- what is to be
done? I wish I had a good answer, or even several approximations of
the beginning of an answer. Certainly the state of official electoral
politics everywhere is dismal. European leftists can kvetch about the
Third Way, but we've just inauguarted a reactionary moron who didn't
really even win the election. It's almost enough to make me nostalgic
for Bill Clinton.

But outside the electoral realm, there are some very exciting newish
political movements, for which "Seattle" has become the shorthand. I
understand there's quite a dispute going on between the British
Socialist Workers Party and its U.S. subsidiary, the International
Socialist Organization, on just what these movements are all about,
with the SWP calling them anticapitalist, and the ISO calling them
anticorporate. In part this may be a geographical difference. I've
noticed that the European press uses the word anticapitalist to
describe them. The U.S. press calls the demonstrators anticorporate
or antiglobalization, both because they can't even imagine how anyone
could object to capitalism, and because we don't have much of a
native strain of anticapitalism in our political tradition, but we do
have a populist, petit bourgeois, small business one.

All these names, you'll notice, begin with anti-, which suggests that
they've got a pretty good idea of what they're against, and a much
vaguer idea of what they're for. That criticism has been made here,
and its truth has to be conceded. But after 20 or 25 years of
political torpor, this is some serious progress.

I said "Seattle" is the shorthand for these movements, but they
weren't born there. You can trace them back at least a few years
earlier. There was the worldwide mobilization against the
Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which was being negotiated in
effective secrecy by the major powers -- until a draft text of the
treaty was leaked and posted on the web. Within weeks, an anti-MAI
movement, formed in large part through websites and email lists, was
formed, and not all that much later, the MAI talks collapsed. Part of
the problem was that the major powers had some differences among
themselves, but the popular movement contributed a lot to the failure.

Then there were the coordinated worldwide demonstrations around the
G-7 summit on June 18, 1999. Time was that almost no one paid serious
attention to these summits, but J18 was marked by scores of protests
from New York to Nairobi. The front page of the Financial Times
carried an inspiring picture of a shirtless protester hurling a rock
at some cops; the City of London was effectively shut for the day.

Then, of course, there was Seattle. There was a lot that was unique
and irreproducible about that event. For one, the authorities were
caught off guard; for two, it's a liberal city whose government
wanted to be as tolerant of protest as possible; and for three, the
local police just weren't up to the task. At the end of the protest
week, I walked up to a group of cops and said, "I'm from New York,
and believe me, this couldn't have happened there. The mayor would
have surrounded the meeting site with 40,000 cops and no one but the
delegates would have gotten close." One of the cops replied, "Yes,
but the NYPD has lots of experience with crowd control. We don't."

A few months later, in Washington, DC, the cops were plenty prepared
for the April 16 protests against the World Bank and the IMF -- but
the meetings were still disrupted, and virtually the entire center of
the city was shut down. But of more political importance, the Bank
and the Fund had to junk their prepared agenda and instead talk
unconvincingly about their deep concern for the world's poor. If
hegemony consists in part of establishing the terms of discourse --
as they say in the opinion management business, we can't tell the
public what to think, but we can tell them what to think about --
then something is happening here. We were telling them what to think

I could list some more names: Melbourne, Davos, Porto Alegre, and,in
two months, Quebec City. That kind of catalog would point out one of
the risks of this movement -- that, in the words of the Canadian
writer Naomi Klein, it runs the risk of devolving into serial
protest. But since I'm trying to be more optimistic these days, I'll
say it's not yet done that, because it's still a young movement,
trying to find its feet.

Related to this movement is an explosion, over the last three years,
in the level of political activism on U.S. campuses, most prominently
the anti-sweatshop movemnt. (Anti- again, but it's having serious
real world effects.) Maybe I'm a bit biased about this because I live
with its leading journalistic chronicler, Liza Featherstone, but this
is profoundly inspiring stuff. Here's an example of what it's up to.
A few weeks ago, a South Korean-owned firm that does contract work
for Nike fired some workers who were trying to organize an
independent union. The students heard about it, and within days, they
were on the scene in Mexico -- and at home, they started publicizing
the fight. Just the other day, Nike, fearful of bad publicity, forced
the Korean firm (whose managers had claimed that it was an acceptable
form of labor discipline to hit lagging workers in the head with a
hammer) to rehire the organizers. Maybe this is just temporary; maybe
it's a PR coup that will soon be quietly undone. Maybe this is all
too media driven; news that MTV is working on a special about
"Revolution" confirms anxieties that the system is, in the words of
Tom Frank and his colleagues at the Baffler magazine, commodifying
our dissent. But better MTV is doing a special on revolution than on
apathy. Again, we're telling them what to think about.

Time is running short, and it's time to start summing up. Some of the
many exciting things about these movements is that they're global,
they're fast, and they've had an impact. They couldn't exist without
the technologies, like the web and the cell phone, that were only
recently the stuff of capitalist triumphalism. Organizationally,
they're flexible yet disciplined, serious yet good humored. Their
structure has more to do with Spanish anarchism of the 1930s than
with the Bolsheviks of 1917. Soon after I got back from Seattle, I
was part of a panel reporting on the events to the New York City
chapter of the Labor Party. After I was done, a voice arose from the
audience to complain that what I was talking about sounded more like
carnival than politics, and then it launched into what sounded like a
computer-generated Leninist diatribe about imperialism. How
especially odd it seemed to hear that; it was as if the speaker
wasn't, as the doctors say, properly oriented in time and space. The
kids wouldn't have listened to him for a second. And the carnival was
absolutely wonderful, one of the greatest weeks of my life.

So is there a role for Marxist intellectuals in these new movements.
Yes, absolutely, I'd say. It's true that they're theoretically
unsophisticated (though Michael Hardt told me that some of the
anti-sweathop activists at Duke, where the movement started in 1997,
are really liking his class on Capital). Seattle, the new
revolutionary icon, was ideologically a very mixed bag, with
nationalist Steelworkers mingling with topless lesbians, petit
bourgeois greens, and some unaffiliated socialists -- and the
infamous black bloc of anarchists, who marched around chanting things
like "Capitalism, no thanks/We will burn your fucking banks!" The new
activists tend to focus on extreme abuses, like sweatshops, or on
state institutions, like the IMF and WTO -- though it's easy to
understand that institutional focus, because such institutions give
Empire something like a home address. But in my experience of talking
to the protesters (and I don't want to give the impression that
they're all young, though they mostly are), they're extremely open to
a radical analysis. The ISO has been spending a lot of time around
the anti-sweatshop movement, and from what I'm told, the kids are
grateful to hear a coherent analysis of how the parts of the system
fit together, but they're extremely wary of furtive takeover
attempts. Vanguardists have this distressing habit of trying to take
over movements that they had no role in starting; I'm reminded of the
American poet A.R. Ammon's line (which I'm quoting from memory, so I
may not have it exactly right) that the way to look like a leader is
to get in front of a moving crowd and start waving your arms. That's
not very helpful, and it will give Marxism a very bad name at a
moment when its prospects look better than they have in a very long
time. Much better, it seems, would be for Marxist intellectuals to
talk with the protesters, to engage them in conversation with some
modesty and even a touch of awe.

A few months ago, I interviewed the Columbia University economics
professor Jagdish Bhagwati for a piece I co-wrote on the
anti-sweatshop movement that will appear imminently in the academic
gossip magazine Lingua Franca. Bhagwati was very disturbed by the
events in Seattle, and came back from there to organize his
free-trading comrades into a protest group of their own, the Academic
Consortium on International Trade. Bhagwati recalled a chat he had
with a masked young woman in Seattle. He asked her if the mask
signified she was a Zapatista. She said no, she's an anarchist. He
just didn't know what to make of her, or the crowd she was part of,
but he was quite unnerved. The ruling class is rather unnerved by
this new generation of protest, and that can only be a good thing.
I'm almost tempted -- especially given the lack of a female presence
on this platform throughout this conference -- to nominate the
anonymous masked woman as the Lenin of our time. That wouldn't be
quite accurate, I know, but it's still mighty tempting.


>Does it mean anything to be a Leninist in 2001?
>Doug Henwood ...
>Lenin also said that
>company accounts were getting incrasingly murky, in order to hide all
>kinds of self-dealing and other financial chicanery. While there are
>some exceptions, this is hardly an accurate description of the
>present, when "transparency" is all the rage.

I think *you're* out of sync with current reality here, Doug.  Off the top
of my head, I can cite Xerox, Lucent, Cendant, Rite Aid, and Cisco as
examples of major companies that have had either huge accounting scandals of
late -- long undiscovered by supposedly crack auditors -- or grave
suspicions concerning their bookkeeping.  This vaunted "transparency" is
just so much, ah, PR puffery.


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