Lenin conference

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Feb 9 12:54:36 MST 2001

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

Actually, there has been a thorough re-investigation of how to understand
Lenin in context over the past 10 years in a move away from "literal
transposition". I refer people to my own writings on the Internet,
statements on the Solidarity website, an analysis by Canada Marxist David
McNally at: http://www.web.net/~newsoc/, Hal Draper's 1960s articles at
marxists.org, etc. None of this would prove convenient for Henwood, since
his version of Leninism seems virtually synonymous with the Spartacist
League, an easy straw man to knock down.

>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.

What else would you expect from people who are in their vast majority
full-time professors.

>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.

This is so laughable. Lenin's definition of a vanguard party is found in
most specific form in "What is to be Done". He says that the mass, legal
German Social Democracy is the best example of a vanguard, one that the
Russians should seek to emulate. Examples of vanguard party activity?

"Let us take, for example, the German Social-Democrats, whose weak aspects
alone our Economists desire to emulate. Why is there not a single political
event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of
Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance
of all others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given
event and in championing every protest against tyranny. It does not lull
itself with arguments that the economic struggle brings the workers to
realise that they have no political rights and that the concrete conditions
unavoidably impel the working-class movement on to the path of revolution.
It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political
life; in the matter of Wilhelm's refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressist
as city mayor (our Economists have not yet managed to educate. the Germans
to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with
liberalism!); in the matter of the law against "obscene" publications and
pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of
professors, etc., etc. Everywhere the Social-Democrats are found in the
forefront, rousing political discontent among all classes, rousing the
sluggards, stimulating the laggards, and providing a wealth of material for
the development of the political consciousness and the political activity
of the proletariat. As a result, even the avowed enemies of socialism are
filled with respect for this advanced political fighter, and not
infrequently an important document from bourgeois, and even from
bureaucratic and Court circles, makes its way by some miraculous means into
the editorial office of Vorwarts."

There you have it, comrades. The vanguard party is in the forefront of
challenging Kaiser Wilhelm's refusal to endorse a "bourgeois progressist"
as mayor, upholding the right to print smut and allowing the academy to
choose its own professors. Sounds exactly like the kinds of issues that
confront the left today, don't they? Somewhat like the early 1900s version
the fight of "1960s losers" to defend free speech radio at WBAI today.

>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,

A picture of Lenin? Must be right next to Madonna.

>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

Why am I not surprised that a "Marxist" professor who is pals with Henwood
views Lenin as a gangster.

>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.

One might even surmise that Lenin would be the first person voted off the
island on television's "Surviror" as well. Who cares.

> 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

Good lord. The measure of success is how many people get college jobs?
Perhaps Marxism's success should be measured by the fact that outspoken
Marxists can't get jobs.

>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.

Idiotic. The first measure is college teaching jobs. The next is whether
there are Marxists on Wall Street????!!!!??? What about the trade unions,
knucklehead. NYC's transit union is now run by the New Directions slate,
which was launched by Marxist activists. Tim Schermerhorn, one of the major
leaders, is on the editorial board of Against the Current and the board of
directors of NYC's Brecht Forum. Naomi Allen, another leader, was in the
Trotskyist movement. Other than unions traditionally linked with the CP,
this is the first major American union since the witch-hunt that is being
led by conscious Marxists.

>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.

It would help if you knew something about what Lenin stood for. What don't
you focus on Lacan, who you do know something about.

>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.

What would poor Doug do without those "self-identified Leninists". I
suspect that they play the same role for him as the "goyim" played for my

>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.

At least with Lenin you get economic analysis. With these scribblers you
get nothing but Oswald Spengler type windbaggery.

>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.

It might not hurt our greenhorn Henwood to read "What is to be Done". In
that deftly written polemic, Lenin explained why the "movement" was

>attempts. Vanguardists have this distressing habit of trying to take
>over movements that they had no role in starting;

Doug must be referring to the Spartacist League, his favorite "Leninist"

>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.

The Lenin of our time? I believe that Zizek has that title all sewn up.

Louis Proyect
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