Review: Lenin Embalmed

Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn, Patrick Anderson and Johann Salazar (eds), Lenin150 (Samizdat), 2nd edition, Daraja Press, 2021.

The renaissance of literature on Lenin in the last decade has produced many useful insights. Unfortunately, with regard to this book, I can’t share the enthusiasm of those on the far left who have reviewed it so far.[1] A few notable exceptions aside, the essays in this collection are frustrating and disappointing. Some of the worst fads and trends of the left find expression here. Lenin150 (Samizdat) reveals that striving for novelty often produces its opposite. The book harnesses the unique powers of academic jargon to give a radical gloss to postmodernism, identity politics, Maoism, liberalism and nostalgia for the USSR.

A bad start

The Introduction resembles a bad stand-up routine replete with in-jokes. Why, asks editor Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn, does so much interest and controversy surround Lenin so many years after his death? – “False Consciousness? A strange case of Leninitus? Left-Wing Melancholia? Post-Traumatic Socialist Disorder?” (p.2). To buffer his answer to this question, Joffre-Eichhorn squeezes in references to Vladimir Mayakovksy, Julius Caesar and German pop psychology, which adds words but not substance. On the enduring significance of Lenin, he concludes: “The man Lenin was a winner. He had as the Germans say, the Sieger-Gen, the innate capacity and will to win. And while all this might sounds terribly deterministic and mechanical – sorry Vladimir Ilyich – what I am getting at here is simply the fact that ‘Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live’ has not only a propagandistic and (vaguely) lyrical but also an ontological dimension that I believe should not be reduced to the eternal paying homage to Lenin the actually existing revolutionary, though we may do that too, but rather to make his Sieger-Gen the psycho-material foundation of our own individual and collective DNA, our fighting spirit so to speak” (p.3). This insight has all the sophistication of Nike’s “Just do it” minus the concision.

USSR nostalgia

The collection is a collage of USSR kitsch which, judging by the essays, reflects not just the aesthetic but also the political proclivities of many of the contributors. The book is full of nostalgic images of stoic statues of Lenin throughout the former Soviet bloc countries. Joffre-Eichhorn describes these statues as “comforting,” while the editor/photographer Johan Salazar can’t deny the “Soviet triumphs” in science, sport, infrastructure and the space race (p.306). But why stop there? The US made similar, arguably greater advances in the same period. The Nazis made great strides in infrastructure and medical research.

In the preface, Breathing for Revolution – Toward an Oxygenic Communism, the editors confess their stance on the USSR. They are “inclined to defend certain aspects of the 70+ year history of the USSR and other Communist experiments” while acknowledging the “lack of oxygen” (p.xii) – a euphemism for dictatorship. It is correct but insufficient to criticise the absence of democratic rights in the USSR. Stalinism plus parliamentary democracy does not equal socialism. What is missing in the preface and in the rest of the essays is an understanding of Lenin and Stalin as the embodiments of revolution and counter-revolution respectively.

Many of the authors are critical of Stalin’s excesses but simultaneously blur the line between Stalinist/Maoist distortions and genuine Marxism.[2] A few, such as Roland Boer in Lenin and non-antagonistic contradiction, not only defend but celebrate high Stalinism. Seeing as Roland’s bio at the back of the book praises him as “the first foreign national to be appointed to an ongoing position in a School of Marxism Studies in China”, I expected thinly veiled Stalinism, and thinly veiled it was. In his introduction, Boer clarifies what he means by “socialism”: “[t]he category of non-antagonistic contradictions arose from the practical experience of constructing socialism, initially in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and then in China, especially through the impetus of Mao Zedong and later in the context of the socialist project of “Reform and Opening-up” led by Deng Xiaoping” (p.103). The highpoints of the socialist tradition for Boer are Russia at the height of Stalin’s repression – the “results of the socialist offensive” that led to the “creative period of the 1930s” and the early years of one-party rule in China. “Non-antagonistic contradiction” for Mao and for Boer functions as a twisted theoretical whitewash to argue that a one-party dictatorship lording over the massive exploitation of workers and the peasantry is not necessarily at odds with liberation. It is particularly sickening to have such rubbish published alongside an essay by Leon Trotsky, who fought and was ultimately murdered by Stalin.

Žižek’s essay deserves a special mention for combining the most insipid reformism with a high Stalinist fetishisation of state power. In his essay Lenin? Which Lenin? Žižek argues that the left has for decades now been “in the trap of oppositionalism”. The problem, according to Žižek, is twofold. First, the left should stop fighting the state and focus instead on getting elected. Second, once elected they should be less antagonistic. Žižek chastises the left for lacking vision before offering sage advice that if and when elected, leftist governments should make sure to “define a positive role for the private sector”.[3] Given the failures of multiple leftist electoral projects of the last few years it’s unclear whether Žižek isn’t paying attention or has a desire to see history repeated as farce.

Taking Lenin out of context

Readers of this journal would know that we think Lenin has a lot to offer revolutionaries today. But his insights can’t simply be dumped on various contemporary situations. Lenin famously argued that the truth is concrete. Taken as isolated proclamations, Lenin’s phrases and interventions can be used to justify just about anything.

This is exemplified in Atilio A Boron’s essay, Notes on “Left-wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, which argues that it is ultra-left and aids US imperialism to criticise the Bolivian government from the left. Obviously, the left should oppose the US’s constant and belligerent attempts to undermine democratically elected governments in the region. But to argue that it is ultra-left to criticise these long-running capitalist regimes is ludicrous. Lenin’s approach to tactical compromises and alliances placed a premium on sharpening, rather than blunting, criticisms. More to the point, “Left-wing” Communism was not about giving left cover to reformists. It was an argument about how revolutionaries could win a mass audience in order to defeat them.

In a similar vein Georgy Mamedov uses Lenin’s essays on the national question to make the case for “radical identity politics”. Mamedov distinguishes between conventional identity politics with its emphasis on “representation” with “revolutionary identity politics” that seeks societal transformation using examples from the 1970s of gay liberation and Marxist feminism as examples of the latter. Mamedov feels the need to marry identity politics and Marxism for the same reasons Marxist feminists (whom he quotes favourably) felt the need to do this in the 1970s – he accepts that the USSR was in some way socialist. According to Mamedov, “the experience of actually existing socialist regimes showed that economic transformation on its own does not lead to the transformation of oppositionist social relations…” (p.121). He is talking about Stalinism, not genuine Marxism, when decrying “[t]he stubborn economism of traditional Marxist politics”.

While there are politically better and worse iterations of identity politics, the framework is not consistent with Marxism generally or Lenin’s approach to oppression specifically – see Sarah Garnham’s article in this edition of the journal for a full explanation. Lenin’s writings on the national question are not a blueprint for marrying Marxism and identity politics, but a consistent application of revolutionary Marxism. Like Marx, Lenin took seriously questions of oppression not because he sought to “de-privilege” Russian workers but rather the opposite – because he wanted to raise their class consciousness and confidence. Marxists fight alongside the oppressed and against oppression because we want to see workers take power and oppression divides and weakens us.

Some better contributions

Some better essays stand out. Alain Badiou’s Lenin, Founder of the Modern Meaning of Politics discusses the significance of Lenin’s April Theses for advancing a conception of politics that was not centred on managing the institutions of the state, but rather reorganising society along totally new lines. Badiou correctly situates the April Theses as crucial to understanding the difference between the February and October revolutions of 1917: “The February revolution…aims only to change the form of the state; politics thereby assumes the first of its two possible meanings”. In contrast, Lenin’s Theses embody politics in the second sense where “the aim of political action must be to transform the organisation of society in its entirety, shattering the economic oligarchy and entrusting production…to the management of all those who work” (p.16).

I share Badiou’s opinion regarding the importance of the April Theses. However, the idea that these engendered a “new” understanding of politics unique to Lenin is wrong. Marx classically liberated “politics” from its position as an adjunct of states and nation-states. In works like The Critique of the Philosophy of Right and On the Jewish Question, he advanced a theory of politics that rejected the idea that liberation would be won through the bourgeois state. In developing his April theses, and for his subsequent arguments in State and Revolution, Lenin returned to and developed Marx’s writings.

Some of the essays seem to be a genuine attempt, with mixed results, to draw on Lenin to grapple with contemporary political questions. Vashna Jagarnath’s Peace, land and bread – We are not going to die of coronavirus, we are going to die of hunger! and Michael Brie’s Learning from Lenin – and doing it differently fall into this category. Jagarnath’s essay is a highly charged account of the political landscape in South Africa in 2020. Her essay is a powerful polemic against the ruinous role of NGOs, and calls for politics that look to the power of the working class. However, Jagarnath’s attempt to graft the slogan “peace, land and bread” onto contemporary South Africa is less successful, suggesting that the key impasse faced by the left is its inability to formulate appropriate slogans.

Michael Brie looks at Lenin’s most decisive interventions such as his opposition to the First World War, his initiation of a new International and his theory of the state and imperialism. He tries to translate these into the tasks facing the European left, but his calls to action amount to extremely vague appeals for “new narratives” while cautioning against “extremes”: “The European Left…is often driven by an either/or, right-or-wrong mentality. This divides and paralyses us. We need scenarios that do justice to the openness of the situation and at the same time reflect on the concrete possibilities” (p.34). Writing from Germany, where Die Linke has continued its drift to the right, one wonders how Brie could think political intransigence is the problem.

Arguably the best essay is Elvira Concheiro Bórquez’s Lenin does not mean Leninism. In the least equivocal terms, she argues that Lenin’s thought is the antithesis of Marxism-Leninism as state ideology. She highlights how Stalin’s construction of a cult of Lenin was a conscious process by which he cemented his power and that it involved a complete renunciation of the democratic, anti-dogmatic approach that rendered Lenin such an important figure in the Russian revolution. On this same basis, she points out how Lenin’s Marxism broke with the deterministic and reductionist tendencies of the Second International in placing the emphasis on agency and conscious intervention into the historic process. Michael Neocosmos’ Lenin’s Turn to the Masses (1921-23) similarly highlights how even against the backdrop of civil war, increasing isolation and economic ruin Lenin sought at every turn to expand the democratic participation of the masses to combat the developing bureaucratism. Unfortunately he identifies Lenin’s democratic legacy with Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which mobilised students against workers and intellectuals in service of a factional battle within the CCP.

The last two pieces worth commenting on are Matthieu Renault’s On revolutionary prudence, or the wisdom of Lenin and Jodi Dean’s Lenin’s Desire: Reminiscences of Lenin and the desire of the comrade. These contributions are symptomatic of the politically better contributions – an interesting, politically astute insight is bookended by wacky digressions that not only fail to add anything but actually obscure the main insight.

Renault’s article begins with a rather long tangent of “free word association” where he ponders the connection between the two Beatles songs, Back in the USSR and Dear Prudence, ending with the very pertinent question “what if the Beatles had established a connection between Gandhi and Lenin?” This thought is left hanging (for good reason) and Renault moves on to argue that Lenin’s brilliance lay in a prudence (“phronesis”) defined by “concrete analysis of a concrete situation” in contrast to the conventional wisdom involving abstract proclamations of truth (“sophia”). As Renault points out, Lenin was contemptuous of self-proclaimed “sages” of the petty bourgeoisie; attributing wisdom instead to what the working class acquires in struggle.

Renault’s insight loses its utility when he extends it to explain the difference between Lenin and Stalin – “The essential discord between Lenin and Stalin thus ultimately boils down to the difference between phronesis and sophia” (p.200). According to this tortured reading, Stalin’s lack of prudence is to blame for a host of his policies, from his suppression of national minorities to the brutality that characterised the USSR from the late 1920s. Renault returns to the Beatles at the end of the essay, bringing in Jacques Derrida to further elaborate on the significance of the songs and the Gandhi/Lenin connection – “The circle is complete, the link between Back in the USSR and Dear Prudence by the Beatles is revealed: Lenin’s revolutionary prudence arrives, by strange detours, at Gandhi’s phronesis” (p.199). Strange detours indeed.

Dean’s essay, despite the esoteric title, is actually an argument about the relationship between the revolutionary party and the class. Importing a Lacanian psychoanalytic framework, she suggests that the relationship between the two is mutually constitutive. The role of organisation is not to dictate to the masses from on high but to actualise the agency of the working class as a political subject and vice versa. This argument builds on the correct understanding that Lenin’s emphasis on organisation was a product of his faith in the working class, not opposed to it – an argument made by several contributions to Marxist Left Review. Although shrouded in somewhat unhelpful Lacanian language of desire and object relations (eg “Lenin’s desire is the desire of the proletariat”, p.129) her argument cuts against the tendency to see Lenin in terms of his intellectual prowess, but rather as a figure who developed through his intimate engagement with the Russian working class.

It is worth contrasting some of the better literature on Lenin, which includes Neil Harding’s Lenin’s Political Thought, Tom Freeman’s Lenin’s Interventionist Marxism and Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Party. Each of these books offer slightly different insights and emphases, but what they have in common is an attempt to understand Lenin in context and to draw out his relevance for today in terms of the two interconnected issues that defined him as a thinker – the question of revolutionary organisation and workers’ power. Harding’s Lenin’s Political Thought is an expansive and meticulously researched account of Lenin’s thought – how it was shaped by and in turn helped shape the traditions of Russian Marxism, the debates and divisions within the RSDLP, the struggles of the working class, the peasantry and developments within global capitalism. Freeman’s book covers a shorter period, from 1861-1907, but stands out as a politically relevant contribution. He argues that what distinguished Lenin was his emphasis on conscious political leadership and intervention which was a consistent feature of his approach to party building throughout his life. Freeman highlights the democratic and dynamic character of Lenin’s thought, explicitly connecting rather than contrasting this to Lenin’s focus on building a vanguard party. In this journal, Sandra Bloodworth’s articles underline the abyss separating Lenin’s democratic and interventionist Marxism from Second International social democracy and Stalinism.[4]

Conclusion

Many of the essays in Lenin150 shine a light on Lenin’s key insights and interventions and a few of the authors clearly appreciate the richness of Lenin’s thought. Unfortunately, for the most part, this understanding is used to conflate Marxism with variants of reformism and Stalinism, which share an obsession with capturing the capitalist state. In rejecting the need to smash the state these distortions are a barrier to the human liberation envisioned by Lenin, Marx, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci and many others.

The contributors to this collection are overwhelmingly professors and bring with them the worst tropes of academia – jargon obscures meaning, idiosyncrasy takes precedence over substance and obscurity is a virtue. The question that kept arising for me reading this was – how is this relevant? The relevance deficiency applies to this collection in several ways. Esoteric articles such as What Lenin teaches us about witchcraft, A conversation about Lenin and theatre, Electric communism: the continued importance of energy to revolution and City of Lenin and the socialist life of a river vindicate the mocking description of the university as “the ivory tower”. Then there is the question of relevance with regard to the argument being made – what does Derrida’s linguistic musings on the name “USSR” have to do with national liberation? We’ll never know because the author doesn’t feel compelled to explain. Finally, and most importantly, there is the question of relevance to the project of changing the world.

Ironically, this collection seems to be an attempt to make Lenin relevant, to destodgify the left and make it seem fun. This might be entertaining for all involved but what we, the working class and the oppressed need and deserve is political clarity. Theory should help us to better understand the world in order to change it. More than the sum of pithy quotes and polemics, this is what Lenin was about.

References

Bambery, Chris, “Lenin150 (Samizdat): Review”, Counterfire, March 2021. https://www.counterfire.org/articles/book-reviews/22169-lenin-150-samizdat-book-review

Freeman, Tom 2017, Lenin’s Interventionist Marxism, Interventions.

Harding, Neil 2009 [1977-78], Lenin’s Political Thought, Haymarket Books.

Korr, Kevin 2021, “A Patchwork Lenin”, International Socialism, 170, April. http://isj.org.uk/a-patchwork-lenin/

Le Blanc, Paul 1993, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Humanities Press.

Le Blanc, Paul 2020, “Lenin150 (Samizdat): Review”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, September. http://links.org.au/lenin150-samizdat-lenin-birthday-book

[1] Le Blanc 2020; Bambery 2021; Korr 2021.

[2] For example Ronald Grigor Suny’s essay, A whole river of blood: Lenin and Stalin, argues that Stalinism was a “malignant perversion of the aspirations of the original founders and the revolutionary masses who came onto the streets in 1917” (p.258) but then concludes that Stalin was an (unintentional) outgrowth of Lenin’s polemical style.

[3] “The majority of radical Leftist thought in recent decades has been caught in the trap of oppositionalism: it adopts as self-evident that true politics is only possible at a distance from the state and its apparatuses” and “Instead of just focusing on antagonism, it is…crucial for a Leftist government today to define a role for the private sector…one should not just antagonise it but also propose a positive vision of its role.” (p.292).

[4] Sandra Bloodworth, “Lenin vs ‘Leninism’”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer 2012. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/lenin-vs-leninism/; and “Lenin and a theory of revolution for the West”, Marxist Left Review, 8, Winter 2014. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/lenin-and-a-theory-of-revolution-for-the-west/.

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