Monday, 13 June 2011

Reconsider Lenin.

Life after Politics.

In our supposedly post-ideological wonderland where all great things have been done and all the grand narratives of history have come to an end. We have seen the collapse of Communism and the End of History, as Francis Fukuyama put it, to which George HW Bush gurgled the words "new world order". Conspiracy theorists have since drawn links between the words of Bush I, the events of 9/11 and the war embarked upon by Bush II. The irony being that the words were chosen to mark the closure of a grand narrative, while the events of September 11th 2001 seem to have opened up another grand narrative. For liberal revisionists, the fall of the Berlin Wall came at just the right moment. The demise of Communism in 1989 closed the end of the revolutionary era which began in 1789 with the French Revolution, in which the French passed through the Terror of the Jacobins in order to reach democracy and leave behind feudalism.

The revolutionary figure of Vladimir Lenin is irredeemable in this post-political era, where the greatest threat to Progress are beliefs, passions and ideologies. Let alone dirty words like 'class'. Of course, the irony is that the Enlightenment view of history as progress is at once superstitious - it was disproven by Hitler and Stalin - as well as a pillar of the prevailing ideology. It is also ironic that in such an era of managerial politics that people can only be mobilised by fear. The Bushites mobilised support for the Iraq war by manipulating legitimate fears of terrorism. Though the Bushites were ultimately derided as "extremists" in the same tone as Islamists and Communists. The secular rationality of the market contradicts with it's own perpetual striving, which requires a bit more than agnosticism. It needs reactionary populism, race-baiting and outright fear-mongering to secure itself. There is no place for revolutionary fervour of any kind.

The almost natural inclination of the market is towards pragmatism, into which moral relativism and scepticism are built. At the same time the capitalist system needs to legitimate itself through an ideological superstructure which could range from McCarthyism to right-wing forms of Christianity and populism. The problem emerges as the tendencies of the market begin to subvert the very structure to which it owes legitimacy and defence. For capitalism this contradiction is unavoidable, though it can be managed through cultural warfare. When there is a contradiction between ideology and action a crisis can emerge, so a new kind of discourse must be imported to account for the deficiency. It is not that liberalism is hostile to belief, it is supposedly indifferent to the beliefs of individuals provided those beliefs are not a threat to liberalism. To keep invasive identities at a safe distance there is a need for an invasive belief.

The only permissible positions on revolution are the calls for a revolution without revolution and the outright rejection. Coincidentally this is what differentiates the positions taken, on the French Revolution, by modern conservatives and liberals. In this guise the fullest realisation and logical conclusion of Lenin's work is Stalinism. The reactionary might also cite figures like Mao as evidence that every revolution fails and leads to a bloodbath. Only a conservative acceptance of the status quo is the morally acceptable position. From such a standpoint, Che Guevara is comparable to a Nazi because he fought alongside Fidel Castro to overthrow Batista. Even though the counter-revolutionary forces may have been responsible for the deaths of up to 20,000 Cuban civilians. We should rest assured that Guevara and Castro are the true villains because their revolution was violent. There can be an invasive belief in liberalism to oppose revolution, but to overthrow Batista no such belief in socialism is permissible.
The Fall.

Noam Chomsky denounced Lenin as a right-wing deviant of Marxism, for his opportunistic vanguardism and for laying the foundations for Stalinism. A core idea of socialism is democratic control of production by the workers, thus the point of trade unions is to represent the interests of workers and defend such interests. The swift repression of factory councils and soviets by the Bolsheviks is in opposition to this core idea of socialism. Chomsky stresses that by 1918 Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin held that there needed to be a militarised workforce, in order for progress and development to be secured. The various forms of oppression utilised by the Tsar were recreated under Lenin, e.g. the Cheka, and utilised throughout the Red Terror. For libertarian socialists like Chomsky the Soviet Union is a stain on socialism, for which Lenin and Trotsky are personally responsible.

From an orthodox Marxist perspective we can see that it was not possible to build socialism in backward conditions deprived of the enormous accumulation which takes place under capitalism. The attempt to do so would lead to what we now know as Stalinism. The Bolsheviks were looking to hold the Russian state in place until the revolution came in Germany. Socialism requires a plentiful surplus amassed under capitalism and a revolution could only take place in an advanced capitalist society. The accepted view that the Soviet Union was a socialist state is a bi-product of a convergence of 20th Century propaganda. For decades Communists and anti-Communists alike, depicted the Soviet Union as the first realisation of the socialist ideal. The US sought to demonise socialism by equating it with the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union portrayed itself as the leading socialist state in order to use the moral weight of socialist ideas.

At this point it is appropriate to delve into the issue of comfortable resistance, a tendency which is rife on the Left, it opts for the safe position at which criticism can be avoided and cheap moralisations can be made without consequence. It is also a position of privilege, unique to Western affluence and freedoms. The distance of power gives leftists room to theorise and act with a great deal of freedom. Though the same distance from power was officially maintained in China by the Maoists and in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, nonetheless a kind of totalitarianism functioned and left millions dead. The anarchic distance from power is not an avoidance of the horrors of totalitarianism. It may sound totalitarian to say that power is required to change the world, but it is not the case that every attempt at revolutionary change will lead to totalitarianism.

For Chomsky the Fall can be located in the moment when Lenin seized power. Similarly market fundamentalists invoke a vision of the free-market, which has never existed, in order to dismiss the critics of capitalism and to advocate further neoliberal reforms. These fundamentalists are quick to point out that the free-market has never truly existed and the current economic order is state-capitalist rather than laissez-faire. As Žižek has pointed out "to search for the intruder who infected the original model cannot but reproduce the logic of anti-Semitism." In order to criticise the history of socialism, it has to be acknowledged as "our own" past and not to comfortably jettison the foreign intruder responsible for the corruption of socialist ideals. The failure to do so led to strange parallels, with recent protests across Eastern Europe which locate the recent crisis in a cabal of socialists conspiring to prevent capitalism in it's most pure form.

Begin from the Beginning.

In order to stand for equality, human rights and freedoms it is imperative to not avoid consequences of doing so and go further to undertake the actions necessary to defend and assert such ideals. This is not a position only taken by "extremists", it was the position taken by Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. Force was necessary to defeat Fascism and white supremacy in both instances. It doesn't mean that there every action undertaken are justified by such ends. We should keep in mind the bombing of Dresden by the Allies and the mass-rape of German women by the Red Army. Similarly the suspension of habeus corpus during the American Civil War, which may have been necessary, is certainly not above criticism. We should not refrain from appropriate criticism, as it would not be to deny the greatness of Churchill and Lincoln. This begs a serious question.

At what point do the means devalue the end? Where this point is located is deeply ambiguous. The neoconservatives will argue that it is necessary to use violence to defend freedom, but in effect these same people act to undermine freedom through such means of "defence". In other words, we must defend Western values by infringing upon them on a huge scale. So there are huge risks involved in the use of such force and this is a good reason for a cautious attitude towards power. The variables of a situation, the context and the details of which, are of the highest importance. As without such it can become easy to be led to "defend" our country only to find ourselves involved in torture and killing to snatch the natural resources of another country. Similarly a defence of socialism with gulags and show-trials would be to lose an order worth defending in any way.

As the First World War began in 1914 much of the Left, along with much of the intelligentsia, succumbed to nationalist fervour and supported war. The strident radicalism built up in the run-up to the rebellion of 1905 had been decimated in defeat and the revolutionaries were exiled. But it was the nationalism of 1914 which destroyed what remained of such radicalism. The Bolsheviks were among the few to oppose the First World War as Lenin thoroughly rejected the "patriotic line" of the day. The tragedy being that if the revolt of 1905 had succeeded in regime change for Russia the War might have been forestalled. Instead Lenin had to reinvent revolutionary politics at a time of total breakdown in 1914 and succeeded in doing so. After the Civil War the Bolsheviks had to retreat to the New Economic Policy in 1922, Lenin argued that we should "begin from the beginning over and over again".

In the current epoch of post-politics it would seem that we need to reformulate the socialist project in it's entirety. So it could be said that the full engagement with Lenin offered by Žižek is well overdue. The dominant belief that capitalism as a liberal democratic consensus can last forever is truly utopian. In a world of finite resources, which are in ecological decay, infinite growth is not possible and not a sustainable system for development. Even in a financialised global economy it is not possible to have 3% economic growth every year forever. The dependence on oil is particularly important in this respect, once oil prices spike and no one can afford a barrel of oil civilisation as we know it will quickly grind to a halt. When the crash occurs the free-enterprise system will no longer be an option. If we're lucky we may have to choose between socialism and barbarism.

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