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

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The postmodernists and liberal multiculturalists, today's Bernstein's and Kautskys--our contemporary Plekhanovs and Martovs, beware!

Slavoj Zizek

Reviewed by Michael Gretz

Monday, December 23 2002, 01:40 PM


The Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst, social critic and occasional politician, Slavoj Zizek, described by his publisher Verso as the "giant of Llubljana", has written yet another--his 5th by my count in 3 years--ambitious book. However, this time his Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917, contains--what Zizek himself describes as one of Jacques Lacan's most important conceptual achievements--a "supplement", an inexorable "excess". Sandwiched in between Zizek's eight page introduction and his 144 page Afterword, entitled "Lenin's Choice," are 149 pages of Vladimir Lenin's most important writings from 1917. What is the purpose of republishing these writings, readily available elsewhere, in this context? What possible lessons do the master revolutionary's writings have for us post-modern subjects today? Or perhaps the more germane way to pose the question is what role do they play in the context of Zizek's exercise in this book? Are we to appreciate Lenin's writings on their own, situated in their immanent context? Or are we supposed to see in them some radical kernel from which the meaning of Zizek's own project can be seen to emerge? One needs to read the entire book for the integrated nature of the three constitutive parts (Introduction, Lenin' essays, Zizek's Afterword) to reveal itself.

However, before embarking on the task of explicating the book's texts, it would prove fruitful to say a few words about Zizek himself, and his specific role in the contentiously defined entity of "left academia." Zizek is in many ways an agitator and a dissident. Rejecting both postmodern relativism and liberal multiculturalism, Zizek stands nearly alone in his defense of the radical Marxist critique of ideology, in his desire to ground political practice in a critique of the "realm of appearances." Nevertheless, Zizek's Marxism is not the Marxism of the old binary opposition between "base" and "superstructure." In the legacy of the Frankfurt School, Zizek recognize that in today's late capitalism--under the reign of the culture industry--our conceptual tools must be radically reconstructed. For Zizek, like many Western Marxists before him, psychoanalysis is central to recovering the power of Marxist critique in the era of "the spectacle." However, it is to Lacan, the so-called "Freudian Structuralist," and not William Reich or Herbert Marcuse, that Zizek looks for his inspiration. In the difficult, and occasionally incomprehensible lexicon of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Zizek finds the conceptual keys to unlocking the ideological enigmas of late capitalism. Situated within a Marxist framework, Lacan becomes the battering ram with which Zizek knocks down all the fantasies of the age in which our fantasies becomes more real than "the Real" itself.

Zizek's creative deployment of Lacan within the framework of Marxist materialism has led to some strange bedfellows over the years. From Alfred Hitchcock through F.W. Schelling to Jesus Christ, his previous writings have evidenced a fancy for those most like himself, the heretics, the "shock-jocks" of their age. Having recuperated the spirits of such a diverse group of decidedly non-Marxist figures for the contemporary Marxist project of critique, Zizek has now come full circle to set his sights on one of the most contentious Marxists of all time: Lenin himself. In one sense, this move seems totally unexpected. After all, much that is of worth in twentieth century Marxism are precisely those tendencies situated as far from Lenin as possible. However, on the other hand, the return to Lenin is exactly the type of move Zizek specializes in. Who is more scandalized in left academia today? Who is more "off limits" among left political theorists than Lenin, the architect of the "Bolshevik coup," whose "anti-democratic Jacobinism" the serious, responsible Left has had to "live down" for the last 85 years? In making the return to Lenin, Zizek shatters the false dichotomy of "postmodern vs. liberal multiculturalist Left", and forces a consideration of the original "constitutive trauma" that grounds the impotent symbolic order that reigns among left academics today.

Nevertheless, readers will inevitably wonder, is Zizek serious? A return to Marx may be acceptable today. After all, neo-liberal globalization's smashing of the post-World War II social compromise does make Marx's political economy relevant again. But a repetition of Lenin? How can the substitutionist party, dogmatic materialism, the party-state and the Cheka be relevant again? Perhaps Zizek's return to Lenin is merely tactical, figurative even. He can't be serious, can he?

In the Introduction, Zizek sets out the coordinates of his return to Lenin. Today, the left is in crisis. Its two reigning discourses, post-modernism and liberal multiculturalism, have become stagnant. Locked in a clash of absolutes that seems to go nowhere, it offers no effective guide to radical political practice in the real world. The situation today is much like, Zizek tells us, the situation Lenin and the Bolsheviks faced in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. The stale battles between revisionism and orthodoxy within the parameters of the old Social Democracy led nowhere except to the trenches. Hearing news of the SPD's voting of war credits for German imperialism, Lenin was dumbfounded. He literally would not believe that the largest and most important party of the proletariat would betray its class in such a time of historical crisis. Nevertheless, faced with this impossible dilemma in which every political choice within the prevailing oppositions amounted, in reality, do nothing more than the same capitulation to capitalism's war drive, Lenin responded neither with resignation nor capitulation. Instead, he literally redefined the very meaning of the prevailing oppositions by opening up a new political path beyond the perceived options. For Lenin, there was no choice to be made among the warring nations, no faction within Social Democracy with which a revolutionary could throw in his lot. Revolutionaries must, he argued, reject all of this and follow only the true revolutionary path. They must, he thought, turn the imperialist war into a civil war and found a new international.

According to Zizek, by rejecting everything within his field of vision, Lenin made the most radical gesture he could. By choosing the impossible, by accepting isolation, ridicule and state repression in the name of remaining true to the revolutionary road, Lenin demonstrated a radical understanding of this crucial historical crossroads. It is in this respect, Zizek claims, that Lenin's act, "his choice," continues to speak to those of us on the left today. Faced with our current conceptual deadlock, we must have the courage, the nerve to risk isolation, self-annihilation even, in order to offer a real alternative to the false oppositions recuperated by and churned out for our consumption by the image industry of late capitalism. As he writes:

--What Lenin did for 1914, we should do for 1990. Lenin stands for the compelling freedom to suspend the stale existing post-ideological co-ordinates, the debilitating Denkverbot (prohibition on thinking) in which we live--it simply means that we are allowed to think again period.--

The postmodernists and liberal multiculturalists, today's Bernstein's and Kautskys--our contemporary Plekhanovs and Martovs, beware!

After setting out the contours of his project, Zizek's provocative prose gives way after eight pages to a chronologically arranged selection of Lenin's writings from 1917. For the next 149 pages, we are transported back to 1917 as if to make good on his pledge to repeat Lenin, Zizek must--for a moment at least--literally take us back to Petrograd, in order to get a sense of the historic drama, in order to feel the trauma of the great period of "war and revolution" in which the twentieth century was conceived. Perhaps, only in this way is it possible to gain a concrete appreciation for the context in which Lenin's dilemma was posed.

All of the selections from Lenin offered here are propaganda pieces designed with one purpose in mind, to expose the bankruptcy of the global capitalist system in all of its guises and pose the only alternative to war and barbarism as revolution and the advance toward socialism. In this regard, Lenin's essays serve to illustrate Zizek's main point, political choices that may appear as the clash between two opposed alternatives really constitute nothing more than the dominant system's spiral into the cannibalistic abyss. In order to formulate a real political alternative, it is necessary to "think outside the box," to conceive of political action as the radical act that undermines the symbolic order upon which our perceived choices are grounded.

In Lenin's case, as these essays amply illustrate, the battle he had to fight was an all encompassing one. Not only had he to vanquish all the compromisers, the Mensheviks and the SR traitors of the people who, in one way or another, sided with capitalism; but he also had to persuade the cadres in his own party, many of whom remained enamored with the political universe as it then existed, or to use Zizek's terminology, continued to exhibit a "libidinal investment" in the reigning symbolic order. One need only recall the willingness of some top Bolsheviks, Stalin and Kamenev among them, to serve as the Provisional Government's "loyal opposition." Against all this sordid opportunism, against all this willingness to succumb to compromise and reconciliation with the status quo, Lenin constantly had to defend the purity of the revolutionary act as the only alternative to the horror of war and barbarism.

Beginning with the "Letters from Afar" (March 7-26, 1917), written in Swiss exile, when Lenin's knowledge of events is Russia were limited to the newspapers, through the infamous "April Theses" (April 7th, 1917), written on his return to Petrograd and whose pronouncement led to scandal among the Bolsheviks and rumors of Lenin's "madness," and concluding with his "Report to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies" (October 25, 1917), announcing the successful insurrection against Kerensky's government, these writings portray a Lenin, as Zizek sees him, as a " (--) Lenin--in-becoming: not yet 'Lenin the Soviet institution', but Lenin thrown into an open situation". Consider for example Lenin's words from "The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It" (September 10-14th, 1917):

--Either we have to be revolutionary democrats in fact, in which case we must not fear to take steps towards socialism. Or we fear to take steps towards socialism, condemn them in the Plekhanov, Dan or Chernov way, by arguing that our revolution is a bourgeois revolution, that socialism cannot be "introduced", etc., in which case we inevitably sink to the level of Kerensky, Milyukov and Kornilov, i.e. we in a reactionary-bureaucratic way suppress the "revolutionary-democratic" aspirations of the workers and the peasants. There is no middle course and therein lies the fundamental contradiction of our revolution.--

Thus, for Lenin, the possibility of compromise with a social system turned decadent, with the murderous and disastrous system of imperialist capitalism is not a true option for the revolution. By avoiding any coalition, by refusing any temptation to become a "loyal opposition," Lenin embodied the radical freedom of this era of historical uncertainty. Instead of falling back on the comfort of the familiar, Lenin urged the Bolsheviks as well as the workers, soldiers and peasants of Russia to "choose the abyss" beyond the established political options offered by the Provisional Government. If the example of the workers', soldiers' and peasants' councils of the Dual Power era offered a glimpse of the future of freedom represented by the revolution, if they gave some concrete starting point for the revolutionary reconstruction of society, they did not--nor could they--offer any preconceived blueprint as to how the new society would be constructed in the aftermath of the revolutionary violence. In order to be a revolutionary in Russia of 1917, it was necessary to choose the unknown. For Zizek, it is the radicalness of this act of self-renunciation, of the complete break with any link to the established order that constitutes the political act par excellence. In the annals of modern history, it is Lenin who embodies this spirit in the most radical way.

Revolution at the Gates is available from Verso.

Copyright © 2002 by Michael Gretz. All rights reserved.
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