17 July 2017

'Lenin is more alive than all the living'

This year sees the centennial of the Russian Revolution, a two-stage event in which the abdication of Nicholas II led to the creation of a republic which was in turn overthrown by the Bolshevik "October Revolution" that created the Soviet Union. I'm not sure how Russia plans to observe the occasion, for while Vladimir Putin has said the the collapse of the USSR in 1991 was a tragedy of world history, he's reportedly not that big a fan of the man who created that entity, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The current Russian leader is more of a Stalin fan, not because Lenin's successor was more totalitarian or more vicious but because he was a patriotic hero who defeated Hitler and made his nation a superpower. Whatever Putin's attitude, Lenin's on the minds of many people and bookstores are full of new books on the Revolution. Several of them have been covered in recent review articles in The Nation and Harper's. While those publications are left of center, many of the new books are, if not conservative in theme, still definitely unsympathetic or unforgiving toward Lenin as the founder of a dictatorship that ruled through terror. Some of the authors describe the Bolshevik uprising as a coup d'etat rather than a revolution, while the critics think that the authors go too far in describing the event as Lenin's opportunistic conspiracy, rather than a moment made possible, if not forced, by special historical circumstances that would not have changed much in Lenin's absence. In short, despite the fall of the Soviet Union the debate over Lenin's legacy goes on, and no doubt will go on as long as people remain unreconciled to the rule of capitalism. This is a debate within the left, of course, since the right and much of the center have been convinced since 1917 that Lenin was the devil. It's also in large part a debate about Stalin, the question being whether Stalinism follows inevitably or inherently from Leninism, or whether Stalin's excesses and atrocities were aberrations born of his own wickedness.

Even if you leave Stalin out of it, Leninism raises grave issues about revolutionary entitlement. Lenin, after all, is the man who decided that a revolutionary vanguard did not have to wait for the proletariat to develop sufficient class consciousness in the inevitable but protracted manner Marx predicted, but was entitled to seize any opportunity to push history forward. Most importantly and provocatively, he felt entitled to seize power and keep it by silencing dissenters and killing them if necessary. From a liberal perspective, there's little solace in the fact that Lenin had no desire to be worshiped, as Stalin apparently did, and was not murderously paranoid about his own comrades, as Stalin definitely was. Lenin claimed to act in the name of the people, but he did so on the assumption that he knew better on objective grounds what the people's interest was than the people themselves. Lenin will always be with us, probably, because democracy is constantly challenged by the idea that the people's (or the planet's) interest is not simply whatever the people (or any given electorate) say it is. Liberal democracy is always beset on two sides by those convinced that the people's interest has already been defined beyond dispute by divine revelation and those convinced that they can reason it out for themselves and act accordingly in defiance of all disagreement. In more specific terms Lenin still represents an alternative to capitalism to those convinced that some alternative must exist. They may recoil from Lenin's own extreme measures, but they may worry that to repudiate and vilify Lenin entirely is of necessity to endorse capitalism. They may also be the audience for Slavoj Zizek's oft-repeated advice, recycled anew for a volume exploiting the centennial, to recognize Lenin as a failure while endeavoring to "fail better," in Samuel Beckett's words, at the general goal of emancipating humanity from capitalist alienation through revolutionary mobilization. You may not want to go that far, but so long as it remains theoretically possible to reason out a common good that isn't subject to a vote, Lenin is unlikely to stay on the ash heap of history.

Speaking of history, here's a funny story. One of the things Putin doesn't like about Lenin, reportedly, is that he allowed a right to secession that was taken advantage of in 1991, killing the USSR. It makes you wonder why Stalin didn't do something about that. The answer probably is that Stalin's own 1936 constitution was full of civil liberties that no one took seriously, so what did he care about any one of those rights? Make of that what you will, but what do you make of the apparent fact that the Soviet Union, the epitome of totalitarianism, permitted exactly that thing which Abraham Lincoln claimed that the U.S. Constitution, the epitome of liberal democracy, did not, and that when Americans asserted that right in spite of Lincoln hundreds of thousands of people died, but when Soviet republics asserted their right, the "evil empire" went down without a fight?

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