Fw: On Essen Lenin Conference

Les Schaffer schaffer at SPAMoptonline.net
Sat Mar 3 22:53:37 MST 2001

[ bounced HTML format from "George Snedeker" <snedeker at concentric.net> ]

----- Original Message -----
From: Kevin Anderson
To: rpa-list at southwestern.edu ; psn
Sent: Saturday, March 03, 2001 11:04 AM
Subject: RPA: On Essen Lenin Conference

>From <News & Letters>, Chicago, March 2001 <nandl at igc.org>

Retrieving Lenin for the 21st Century?

Essen, Germany -- Organized primarily by the radical philosopher
Slavoj Zizek, a conference on the theme "Towards a Politics of Truth:
The Retrieval of Lenin" was held February 2-4 in this small German
industrial city. Some 150 people from Germany, France, Britain,
Belgium, The Netherlands, Korea, Kurdistan, Austria, and elsewhere,
many of them youth, heard 16 speakers. They discussed Lenin and
dialectics, Lenin and colonialism, Lenin's concept of organization,
and whether Lenin is relevant to today's anti-globalization movements.

Given today's political and intellectual climate, it would be an
understatement to call such a conference controversial. Controversy,
if not scandal, seemed to be the intent of conference organizer Zizek,
whose article "Learning from Lenin" appeared in the prominent weekly
<Die Zeit> on February 1, the day before the conference opened. He
wrote: "Liberal society knows no radical choice. Fundamental change
should not be considered. Here Lenin is actual. The alternative lies
outside the system." Where Marx has been to a great extent integrated
into academia, he added, speaking Lenin's name shows that one is after
truly fundamental change.

In his opening and closing remarks to the conference, Zizek evoked
neither Lenin's concept of the vanguard party nor the single party
state, but "Lenin in becoming -- after 1914," someone who was
"stranded without coordinates" after the outbreak of World War I and
the collapse of the socialist movement, and who had to reinvent
revolutionary theory and practice, not least in a return to Hegel.

Lenin's 1914 return to Hegel became a topic of heated debate on the
first night of the conference, after the philosopher Eustache
Kouvelakis and this writer spoke on Lenin's Hegel studies and his
break with the crude materialism of earlier Marxists. I also developed
the impact of Hegel on his view of world politics, especially the
anti-colonial liberation movements, where Lenin contrasted the
nationalism of imperialist powers to that of oppressed nations engaged
in liberation struggles. (I used this to contrast Serbian nationalism
under Milosevic to that of the Bosnians and the Kosovars.)

This writer's attack on Althusser's misreading of the relation of Marx
and Lenin to Hegel prompted strong agreement from Fredric Jameson, who
deplored recent attempts to portray Hegel as a static philosopher of
totality. Others vehemently defended Althusser's legacy and attacked
the Hegelian tradition in Marxism as extremely damaging. Zizek
criticized those on the Left who had supported Milosevic and pointed
out that Lenin's support of small oppressed nations was not mere
benevolence, but something very concrete, as was his daring to
confront Hegel's absolute.

On the second day of the conference, much of the debate was on Lenin's
concept of the party, including presentations by Trotskyist
theoreticians such as Daniel Bensaid and Alexander Callinicos. More
thoughtful interventions that questioned received views of Lenin came
from Lars Lih and Sebastian Budgen. The highlight of day two, however,
was the intervention via telephone by imprisoned Italian philosopher
Antonio Negri, who discussed the new global resistance to capitalism
as outlined in his recent book, <Empire>. In another talk that day,
Jameson deplored the attempt to reduce Lenin to the political,
suggesting that he had returned to Marx's concept of capital through a
reading of Hegel's Larger Logic. Revolution is the key, Jameson
concluded, if we can keep it alive as process, not event.

Throughout, the conference exhibited tensions among cultural studies
types, orthodox Leninists, and anti-globalization activists. These
tensions came to the fore on the last day, when anti-globalization
activist Doug Henwood argued that Lenin was not very relevant to
today's struggles. This was followed immediately by Alain Badiou's
structuralist-Maoist presentation, one that bizarrely tried to
resurrect not only the mindless destructiveness of Mao's Cultural
Revolution, but also his maxim that "one divides into two," which was
presented as a high point of revolutionary philosophy. It was quickly
pointed out that such Maoisms lead only to what Hegel called the rage
and fury of destruction, a type of negativity that contains nothing of
the creativity of a forward movement, which is why Hegel contrasted
bare or abstract negativity to absolute negativity, the negation of
the negation.

Was this conference the harbinger of a critical recovery and
rethinking of the legacy of that great revolutionary thinker and
leader, Lenin, who is so slandered today that few on the Left even
dare to pronounce his name? Germany's liberal establishment press
(<Suddeutsche Zeitung>, <Frankfurter Rundschau>, etc.), which covered
the conference in great and scornful detail did not seem to think
so. Even the left of center <Tagezeitung> likened the conference to
resurrecting a corpse, pouring particular vitriol on "antiquated
writers of history, who disputed to what extent Hegel corresponded to
Marxist-Leninist doctrine and who sought to liberate the true Lenin
from the Leninologists." One wonders, however, if these critics
protest too much, if they do not feel the earth moving underfoot, at
least to a slight degree.

Kevin Anderson

More information about the Marxism mailing list