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Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917 (Part II)

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This is an excellent book, which--if it does nothing else--reminds all us closet Leninists that the meaning of the legacy inaugurated by this master revolutionary is still up for grabs, still yet to be decided.

Slavoj Zizek

Reviewed by Michael Gretz

Monday, December 23 2002, 01:36 PM

Following Lenin's essays, in what functions as the third part of the book--a 144 page Afterword entitled "Lenin's Choice", Zizek offers his own intervention into our contemporary political universe, an intervention, we are told, given in the spirit of Lenin's radical choice of 1917. What then could this intervention be, the reader wonders? Will we be treated to a call to reconstitute the vanguard party in 2002, or is Zizek's deployment of Lenin a mere symbolic one? After all this radicalness, will Lenin be offered up as yet another sacrifice to ground a politically quiestic practice, or another academic version of the "long march through the institutions"?

Initially, Zizek's essay is quite radical indeed. Beginning with a scathing critique of contemporary left academia, he upbraids the left for its contemporary Denkverbot or its "prohibition on thinking." Under this current regime, true political subjectivity, such as that exhibited by Lenin in 1917, is marginalized, prey to the dominant discourses of postmodernism and liberal multiculturalism. While the former comes in for criticism for its meaningless relativism, the latter is treated even more harshly for its self-evident hypocrisy. According to Zizek, liberal multiculturalism circumscribes a politically impotent intellectual environment in which the other is tolerated, but only to the extent to which he/she is not really the other. For example, protection of minority group identity is held as the supreme example of enlightened politics, as long as the identity in question does not fundamentally upset the liberal norms of the dominant society. In another case in point, Zizek cites the paradox of Hindu uproar over the recent revelations that for years McDonald's used beef fat to cook its french fries, all the while proclaiming them a vegetarian friendly product, creating s ituation that caused an embarrassed McDonald's to quickly switch to vegetable oil. This was treated as a major victory by the anti-globalization, multiculturalist crowd. Nevertheless, according to Zizek:

--Far from undermining globalization, this protest against McDonald's, and the company's quick answer, embody the Hindu's perfect integration into the diversified global order. The point is not only that the global market thrives on diversification of demand, but that, on a purely formal level, the Hindus' defense of their tradition is already inscribed into the logic of modernity, that is already a "reflected" gesture: the Hindus have chosen (to remain faithful to) their tradition, thereby transforming this tradition into one of the many options available to them.--

We can see how Zizek juxtaposes today's political environment of liberal multiculturalism to Lenin's environment of Menshevism and compromise of 1917. What appears today, in the dominant liberal ideology, as the gesture par excellence of tolerance is really the best possible example of accommodation to the global logic of consumer capitalism, in which lifestyles (be they traditional or transgressive) are but one commodity among others bought and sold on the market. Nevertheless, Zizek points out, had the Hindus attempted to assert something fundamentally real about their culture, something to which the dominant liberal ideology finds repulsive, such as wife-burning, tolerance would cease. Thus, liberal multiculturalism is for Zizek, an ideology racked, not only by internal contradiction, but also by a fundamental accommodation to the status quo of late capitalism. In fact, it is little other than the ideology appropriate to our contemporary era of the globalized consumption of identity and lifestyle.

In opposition to the abstract ethical ideology of multiculturalism in which the ultimate ethical gesture is the act of tolerance, the act of respecting the right of the other to his specific enjoyments, Zizek posits the true ethical gesture of the act, the radical acceptance of the abyss of redefining the dominant oppositions through which we perceive our choices. Against the multi-culturalist right to narrate one's own experience, Zizek counterposes the "Leninist right to the truth." He writes:

--The Leninist answer to the postmodern multiculturalist "right to narrate" should thus be the unashamed assertion of the right to truth. When, in the debacle of 1914, almost all the European Social-Democratic parties succumbed to war fervour and voted for military credits, Lenin's complete rejection of the "patriotic line", in its very isolation from the prevailing mood, stood for this singular emergence of the truth of the entire situation.--

Zizek moves, quickly, from his opening engagement with the contemporary discourse of the left, to a reconsideration of Lenin's theory of materialism from Materialism and Empiro-Criticism (1908). Zizek salutes Lenin's uncompromising defense of materialism against idealism. Nevertheless, echoing more traditional Western Marxist criticisms, he claims that Lenin never got it quite right. Although, coming close, Lenin is never able to transcend the inherent limitations of the infamous "theory of reflection." In its paranoid insistence on the primacy of the material object outside its apprehension by consciousness, Lenin--Zizek claims--betrayed an ultimate capitulation to idealism. The solution to this dilemma, Zizek argues lies in an understanding of materialism that recognizes the inherent limitation of knowledge as always specifically situated. There is no "outside," from which the universe as a whole can be viewed. As such, materialist knowledge is always concretely situated, is always the materialism of a particular point of view. This was Lenin's real situation in 1917. Faced with the horrors of the war, Lenin rejected the Menshevik vulgarities that insisted Russia was not ripe for the socialist revolution. Clinging to their abstract economisitc dogma, the Mensheviks could not understand the truth of the situation, whereas as Lenin's voluntarism in 1917 reflected his implicit appreciation of the situatedness of his knowledge. Thus for Zizek, the true essence of Marxist materialism lies not in Lenin's theoretical book of 1908, but in the revolutionary understanding Lenin exhibited in the throws of history in 1917.

Zizek moves abruptly to an examination of the antinomies of contemporary popular culture, seeking to demonstrate its implication in capitalist ideology, or conversely, the varied glimpses of revolutionary will evident, often unwittingly, in some of its themes. A key theoretical component of his analysis in this regard is his use of the Lacanian concept of the "passage -- l'acte." For Zizek, the passage -- l'acte represents the ability of contemporary capitalist ideology to recuperate transgression, render it harmless and in the end offer it as a commodity for sale on the market. This concept is operative in all the instances where a will to lash out at the system is transformed into an act reinforcing that very system's domination. Fascist and racist violence against immigrants, minorities and gays is a clear example of the passage -- l'acte, but so is the impotent politicized gestures of contemporary multiculturalism. According to Zizek, supposedly benign gestures such as humanitarian aid operations, donation to charity, or the impotent defense of "human rights," far from undermining the contemporary constellation of political choices, only serves to reinforce them and evidences the participants' own morbid fascination with the maintenance the status quo. Too often today, Zizek claims, the "call to action" only serves as a symbol of our own impotence:

--If, today, we follow a direct call to act, this act will not be performed in an empty space--it will be an act within the hegemonic ideological coordinates: those who "really want to do something to help people" get involved in (undoubtedly honorable) exploits like Medecin sans forntieres, Greenpeace, feminist and anti-racist campaigns, which are al l not only tolerated but even supported by the media, even if they seemingly encroach on economic territory (for example, denouncing and boycotting companies which do not respect ecological conditions, or use child labour)--they are tolerated and supported as long as they do not get too close to a certain limit.--

In many respects, Zizek claims, " (--) our historical moment is still that of Adorno". In the impotence of the prescribed modes of actions, we can only consign ourselves to the politics of critique unless we are brave enough to choose the Leninist path of the "act itself," the radical reinvention of the constellation of choice with which contemporary capitalism confronts us.

In an interesting and thought provoking illustration of how traces of the "Leninist act" creep into the discourse of popular culture itself, although often in a completely unrecognized way, Zizek cites the recent Hollywood film Fight Club. The absurd and senseless violence of this film, with its celebration of underground fighting clubs was interpreted by many left-wing critics in a Reichian spirit, as a celebration of violent macho-bonding, as the celebration of proto-fascist subjectivity. On the other hand, Zizek posits an alternative interpretation based upon the theme of "self-beating." In some of the more violent and surprising scenes of the movie, characters actually engage in acts of self-beating. They literally "beat themselves up" in front of their adversary, leaving the antagonists stunned, confused and unable to act. In this way, Zizek finds a glimpse of the Leninist act. This "lashing out at one's self" serves as a symbol of the willingness to lose all dignity within the established order, to end ones libidinal investment in the present, in the anticipation of an uncertain and undefined future. This self-beating, this willingness to have "the shit beat out of oneself," can function as a symbol of the character's assumption of the subjective position of the proletariat precisely as Marx described it it, a subjectivity with "nothing to lose but its chains," and as such no interest to defend the status quo:

--However, there is another dimension at work in self-beating: The subject's scatological (excremental) identification, which is equivalent to adopting the position of the proletarian who has nothing to lose. The pure subject emerges only through this experience of radical self-degradation, when I allow/provoke the other to beat the crap out me.--

Zizek's most provocative ruminations, no doubt, concern the events of 9/11. While rejecting the facile analyses of European Leftists and Islamic conspiracy theorists in which the USA "got what it deserved," he is equally harsh on Uncle Sam. According to Zizek, what the USA encounters in Al Qaeda and the Taliban is nothing more than it own "excess," the nasty elements of its Cold War with the Soviet Union that it was unable to "buy back" and unable to control and manipulate to its own ends any longer. Nevertheless, Zizek offers us a critique of many of the standard analyses of 9/11 that claim that the savage attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon represented the awakening of the USA from its self-imposed "dreamworld," its post Cold War isolation, its turning of a cold shoulder to the various horrifying traumas caused by its own policies in much of the Third World. What 9/11 really represents, he claims, is not a process of de-reification but rather the penetration of the West's own fantastic projections into its experience of "the Real." The West had long imagined itself the victims of such horrific attacks. Hollywood movies, violent video games, vicious conspiracy theory novels, all fascinated the West with their horrific projections of the Real. With the attacks of 9/11, this screen-like spectral experience came home to penetrate the Real, in the constant repetition of the images of the planes smashing into the towers that continue to haunt television and the Internet today.

The real lesson of 9/11, Zizek argues is the necessity to refuse the trap of "compassion" for this or that group of victims. The relativizing arguments that seek to strip the World Trade Center victims of their victimization, by referring to some greater tragedy (AIDS in Africa, War in Kosovo, or the sanctions in Ira), as well as the cynical deployment of nationalism in which 9/11 was "America's tragedy," both fall into the trap of compassion as the sadistic act of enjoyment of the other's suffering. The only true attitude to take to these events is to recognize the pain of all human suffering. We need to seek a way to express our grief outside of the forms of compassion offered us by the dominant forms of identification.

The moment we think in terms of "yes, the WTC collapse was a tragedy, but we should not be in full solidarity with the victims, since this would mean supporting US imperialism", the ethical catastrophe has already arrived: the only appropriate stance is an unconditional solidarity with all victims.

Zizek concludes his Leninist exposition in a direct confrontation with the current Arendtian vogue in political theory. Against the current trend to efface the material realm of production and champion the purely political realm as the only true terrain of freedom, Zizek proposes rereading the old Marxist base/superstructure conundrum in terms of a "mobius strip." In line with his philosophical reformulation of Marxist materialism, Zizek argues that the economy and politics can never be completely untangled. There is no point of reference from which purely political acts can be distinguished from the material conditions that ground them. In Lacanian terms, the economy is the "indivisible remainder," that which can never be completely subsumed to the symbolic order of politics. Here lies the essence of Zizek's political intervention. The Leninist gesture, the true political gesture, is not the liberal elevation of all possible adversaries to worthy opponents in the "realm of politics." On the other hand, the true radical recognizes that there are some opponents, with whom it is better not to open a dialogue, with whom no compromise is possible, those to whom one really should turn a cold shoulder. Was this not Lenin's genius 1917, to refuse any compromise with the "powers that be," even when to do so may have meant a place in the government:

--The "political critique of Marxism (the claim that if you reduce politics to a "formal" expression of some underlying "objective" socioeconomic process, you lose the openness and contingency constitutive of the political field proper) should therefore be supplemented by its obverse: the field of economy is, in its very form, irreducible to politics--this level of the form of the economy (of the economy of the determining form of the social) is what French "political post-Marxists" miss when they reduce the economy to one of several positive social spheres.--

Concluding his essay, Zizek finally makes clear what has been hinted at from the start. His call for a repeating of Lenin is not an argument for the reconstruction for the Leninist party in 2002. The crucial difference between "repeating Lenin" and "returning to Lenin" is indicated here. By "repeating Lenin", Zizek urges the contemporary left to come to terms with its founding constitutive trauma, the horror of making the impossible choice in a time of crisis. It is this sprit of Lenin that must be repeated today. He concludes, "(--) 'Why Lenin?' It is the signifier 'Lenin' which formalizes this content found elsewhere, transforming a series of common notions into a subversive theoretical formulation--.

There is of course much more to this book than I have been able to relay here in this short essay. There are many themes, lines of inquiry, and amusing anecdotes, which I have been obliged to omit from my account of this very provocative and engaging book. In classic Zizekian style, his essay moves from topic to topic, from theme to theme, back and forth in a matter of sentences. From Lenin's dilemma of 1917 to the latest Hollywood films on to antinomies of multiculturalism and back to Lenin, sometimes on the same page! While this makes for suspenseful and exciting reading, it can be somewhat difficult to follow at the same time. Add to this, the immense difficulty of Lacanese and it is easy to see how the uninitiated may not make it through the first one hundred pages without feeling lost. My advice is to stick with it, ignore the terminology and conceptually difficult aspects and push on. For while it may help to try an introduction to Lacan before reading Zizek's essay, it is not necessary to be an expert in psychoanalysis to learn something very important from this book.

Zizek's effort demands praise. His courage to stand against both the prevailing postmodernism and liberal multiculturalism, his taking a stand on the side of radical action against impotent talk is to be commended. In refocusing our attention on the lost lessons of 1917, Zizek shatters the conspiracy of silence on revolution that has held much of the academic Left in its grasps for the last twenty or so years. By reclaiming the name of Lenin, Zizek demonstrates how the left need not be ashamed of its past, of its constitutive traumas of "war and revolution." On the contrary, it should embrace them.

Nevertheless, there are some episodes in this book that will make certain readers wince. For example, Zizek's clumsily formulated references to the "Inner Greatness of Stalinism" are most disconcerting. I finished the book without really understanding what his position on Stalinism really is. Moreover, some of Zizek's interpretations of events and trends in contemporary popular culture will not win him many fans. His rather bizarre interpretations of child-killing and post-partum depression are sure to make many a feminist incensed. Moreover, despite all his praise for the radical Leninist gesture as the refusal of the impotent passage -- l'acte within the parameters determined by the dominant symbolic order, his calls for an international ecological court and his endorsement of the idea of a war crimes tribunal for Henry Kissinger seem to be the precise embodiments of such impotent actions. What either of these often murmured panaceas would really change is unclear.

Besides these points, I feel somewhat uneasy about the book in another way as well. I am thinking here of Lenin. Why does Zizek only seek to repeat the Lenin of 1917? What about the Lenin of 1920, the Lenin of "Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder"? The Lenin, who in the debate with the Left-Communists, berated their opposition to participation in parliaments and trade unions as senseless childishness. Were not electoral politics and the purely economic struggle of trade unionism the self same bourgeois institutions with which Lenin refused compromise three years earlier? Left communism comes if for a severe bashing from Zizek in such a fashion that indicates he either does not know very much about the subject, or he has swallowed Lenin's acerbic polemic lock, stock and barrel. What about the Lenin of 1921 who condemned the Kronstadt revolt and presided over the banning of factions within the Bolshevik Party? Does Zizek also consider this Lenin the shining example of the radical act par excellence? Perhaps the point here is not to fall into the old trap of comparing the "good Lenin" with the "bad Lenin," but to understand Zizek's use of Lenin for what it really is: a symbolic gesture designed to provoke his colleagues in the here and now. But is this really possible? Doesn't this amount to little more than a Sorelian myth for the contemporary left? After all, what is Lenin without the bitter faction fights, the Cheka and the firing squads? Little more than an empty signifier, an empty Master signifier at that, I am afraid. How different is Zizek's attitude toward Lenin from Derrida's famous formulation in solidarity with a "certain spirit of Marx"? Can one be in solidarity with a "certain spirit of Lenin" as well and just ignore all the Jacobin nastiness?

Nevertheless, these points not withstanding, this is an excellent book, which--if it does nothing else--reminds all us closet Leninists that the meaning of the legacy inaugurated by this master revolutionary is still up for grabs, still yet to be decided. Zizek, like any iconoclast, is a bit of a loose cannon, but this is more than compensated for by his own self-renunciations, his own self-beating, throughout the book. As a left-wing academic, he refuses to let himself off the hook. However, I just hope I don't hear a call to repeat Stalin anytime soon. Marx? Definitely! Lenin? Yes, with reservations. Stalin? No thanks.

Revolution at the Gates is available from Verso

Copyright © 2002 by Michael Gretz. All rights reserved.

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