Lenin Essen Conference - report in Radical Philosophy

Sebastian Budgen sebastian at SPAMamadeobordiga.u-net.com
Fri Mar 30 17:30:02 MST 2001

Essen, home of Krupps and other behemoths of German industry, is where
Slavoj Zizek has spent the past year leading a research project on Œthe
Antinomies of Postmodern Reason¹. From 2-4 February 2001, the
Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut ­ an interdisciplinary research college
sponsoring Zizek¹s Million-Mark research prize - hosted ŒTowards a Politics
of Truth: The Retrieval of Lenin¹. The German title was more tentative:
ŒGibt es eine Politik der Wahrheit - nach Lenin?¹ ­ Is there a politics of
truth - after Lenin? No Germans were tempted to respond ­ assembled on
Zizek¹s platform were, in the main, French, British and North American male
academics debating Lenin as philosopher, as political theorist and Œafter

>From the off, Lenin was wielded like a talisman against bourgeois thought.
Where Marx has been recuperated - as a Œpoet of commodities¹, the Marx of
Cultural Studies - Lenin remains inadmissible in polite and scholarly
circles, absent from booklists and syllabuses, named only as dogmatist,
powermonger or catastrophe. Zizek delights in mentioning the unmentionable,
relishing the Œwhiff of scandal¹ that accompanied the conference and
perturbed the Institute. Such Œoffensiveness¹ shatters a consensus, which,
he insists, has been foisted on discourse. As Zizek characterises it, our
liberal-democratic, postideological society is very tolerant, indulgent of
all sorts of causes, allowing all sorts of Œvictims¹ to narrativise their
pain or their perversion. This consensus promotes endless choice, but it is
deaf to one thing: the real choice that would make a difference, the choice
to abolish the market, which is the absolute difference - the Œother
thinking¹ that Lenin represents. There is one phrase that meets those who
propose to think in these terms, and it is a phrase eagerly promoted by
those academics who have Œreturned to ethics¹: your utopian schemes will
lead straight to the gulag or the concentration camp.

But newly Leninist Zizek must also bouleverse Left expectations. For him, to
retrieve Lenin does not involve Leninist precepts such as the vanguard
party. It means to retrieve one moment of Lenin - not steely Lenin but Lenin
rattled, Lenin facing the collapse of a world into war and, as consequence,
a collapse of his worldview. Zizek, Eustache Kouvelakis and Kevin Anderson
all spoke of Lenin in Zurich in 1914. Confronted with the disintegration of
the socialist Second International into warring nations, Lenin withdrew from
active politics to study Hegel. He had to re-ground Marxism theoretically.
This Leninist gesture reverses the famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach about
philosophers only interpreting the world, the point being, however, to
change it. In 1914, Lenin went back to the drawing-board. The Leninist
gesture must be repeated now, amidst the catastrophe of globalisation and
the end of the Eastern Bloc. According to Zizek, our moment does not demand
intervention but close analysis of the Œnew hegemonic co-ordinates¹ ­
indispensable is not a Leninist party but a Leninist gesture of rethinking

Kevin Anderson agreed that Lenin¹s recourse to Hegel resulted in a break
with evolutionist thought. This break generated a new theory of imperialism
with a differentiated approach to the progressive nationalism of the
oppressed and the reactionary nationalism of the oppressors. Daniel Bensaid
presented Lenin as an almost Benjaminian figure ­ overturning automaticist
Second International Marxism and its faith in economic development towards
socialism. Lenin recognises the heterogeneity of the oppressed, which, for
Bensaid, necessitated tailored and expert intervention into ideological and
political struggle. It was this sense of Lenin as intervenor that rang
through Jean-Jacques Lecercle¹s paper. He wanted to take from Lenin a
non-Chomskyian materialist theory of language. Using ŒNature and Choice of
Slogan¹, a pamphlet from July 1917, which analyses the elements of a good
slogan (timely, succinct, condensing and embodying concrete analysis),
Lecercle sketched a performative theory of language. The right slogan
possesses a concrete force, reflecting and modifying its object.

Alex Callinicos tried to put back together what Zizek had split asunder: for
Lenin, analysis and intervention are each bound to each other ­ only by
acting do you find if the analysis is true, while analysis occurs only in
conjunction with practice. But Fredric Jameson was bothered by Lenin¹s
Œdominant code¹ of politics, noting that this had set the tone for much 20th
century Marxism, with its concentration on institutions, such as the state.
Marxism, however, must rely on economics as a determining instance, in the
same way as sexuality is central for Freud, and happily today, it is easier
to move back to economic analysis, for everything appears blatantly economic
in this globalised post-monetarist age. Lenin adopted a spectral form in
Jameson¹s paper. Introduced through a dream Trotsky had in June 1935, Lenin
was presented as the man who is dead but does not yet know it. For Jameson,
this illusion must be sustained, for to keep Lenin alive keeps alive the
possibility of revolution. Domenico Losurdo discharged a more traditional
Leninist spleen, arraigning the liberal tradition for inventing the
concentration camp and its modern version, the trade embargo, and specifying
the characteristics of the new (economic) imperialism (via globalisation) as
ŒHerrenvolk democracy¹. Lars L. Tih, in contrast, compared Lenin to an
evangelist, opening the way for Sebastian Budgen¹s reflection on the Œtorn
halves¹ of recent Lenin biographies and histories of the Russian Revolution.
A rash of biographies have presented Lenin as psychopath, neurotic, steely
monster and lone actor, almost solely responsible for the revolution. In
contrast, the social Œhistories from below¹ wiped out Lenin¹s agency in
favour of foregrounding a self-active mass. Budgen called for a synthesis of
the two approaches, a social history from below which also understands ­ in
Lenin¹s own sense ­ the importance of tactics and intervention ­ i.e. the
extent to which an individual might make a difference in history.

A key issue percolating through the conference was whether new political
movements will be able to avoid Lenin¹s organisational form. Doug Henwood
alleged the utter irrelevancy of Lenin to the Œanarchist¹
anti-corporate/anti-globalisation (US terms)/anti-capitalist (UK term)
movements. (In the world outside the conference national-historical
soul-searching over questions of revolution, tactics and legitimacy suffused
the media too as former ŒSponti¹ and Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer
faced the music for Molotov cocktails lobbed in the 1970s.) Robert Pfaller
and Charity Schribner spoke neither of Lenin nor the anti-capitalist
movement. Pfaller analysed the Œhegemonic co-ordinates¹ of present-day
Austria, quite differently to Zizek, insisting that the masses are treated
to a diet of punishing repressions and ­ horrible dictu ­ they embrace their
own slavery with pleasure. Schribner spoke melancholically of loss, of the
end of the Eastern-Bloc and the consequent deletion of Œcollective memory¹.
Nowadays, she claimed, the memory and past of the GDR were being deleted -
because delegitimated - with all the ease and swiftness of a computer
command. Perhaps she was nostalgic for the bulky Stasi databanks. The final
paper of the conference was a shocker of Nietzschean Maoism from Alain
Badiou, read in his absence by a comrade. The paper began with a left-wing
definition of dialectics (one becomes two) and a right-wing one (two becomes
one). Badiou¹s is the left variety with division, and where division is at
work so too is struggle, as in China during the Cultural Revolution, when,
mass slaughter divided the working class in two. And those who felt queasy
at the thought of violence and persecution were comforted with Maoist and
common-or-garden clichés: Œthe revolution is not a formal dinner party¹ and
Œyou cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs¹. But that was then, and
this is now and sadly, pace Badiou, the youth of today just don¹t want
rebellion ­ they love their mums and dads too much. Resurrected in Badiou
was the hardcore Leninist revolutionary as distanced bloodlusting dogmatist,
so artfully overturned by those who had argued for contemplative Lenin, the
Hegelian philosopher or listening Lenin, the (possibly unbidden but
definitely enthused) spirit of ŒSeattle¹ who refuses to go away and really
wants to bring his Party to the street party.

More information about the Marxism mailing list