Žižek vs Lenin, again

Freud next to a bust of Marx

Ian Parker takes a look at ‘Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating and Working Through’ by VI Lenin and S Žižek (Verso, 2017)

This book brings together some articles, letters and speeches by Vladimir Lenin from 1922 and 1923, difficult years when the Russian Revolution was under threat, corroded from within and attacked by surrounding capitalist states intent on ensuring that October 1917 would end in failure. Lenin here is tackling two intertwined problems. One is the isolation of the revolution; having always been clear that the revolution needed to be spread internationally if it was to succeed, the prospect now with the defeat of working-class uprisings in other parts of Europe was that Russia would be encircled, that the revolutionary process would be fatally distorted, reduced to what Stalin was to trumpet as ‘socialism in one country’. The other is the increasing bureaucratisation in the face of depletion of Bolshevik forces as so many party activists die in the civil war, and in combatting the imperialist army invasions on so many fronts; having always been clear that the revolution required an expansion of democracy, the revolutionary process was being reduced to a relatively small isolated and incompetent apparatus, reduced eventually to small groups, individuals, leaders.

Lenin rails in these pieces against impending failure, and we can see him searching for new ways of combining revolutionary Marxist principles – defence of the gains of the revolution – with pragmatic attempts to make the best of things, to buy time, to build something from the wreckage of the war. There are attempts to deal with the hostile press, a context in which ‘freedom of the press’ as an abstract principle actually ends up allowing external imperialist states to support the White Russian counter-revolutionaries to flood the beleaguered workers state with overwhelming poisonous propaganda. And, crucially, there are attempts to reach out to the peasantry, to make connections between the isolated and weakened new state apparatus based on the ‘soviets’ – workers councils – and small businesses, family and single-person enterprises in the countryside who orient to the market rather than to centrally-directed organisations. Lenin proposes that a ‘Central Control Commission’ be set up to oversee party and state processes, independent bodies that would check the corruption and temptation for individuals to increase their own power in these harsh times.

These are outstandingly difficult conditions in which to build socialism, impossible in fact, and, worse, these conditions pose new problems that have never been faced by revolutionary Marxists. Lenin’s attempts to grapple with these novel conditions have a bearing on problems faced by socialists today, ranging from the isolation of the left in different national contexts to the influence of a hostile mass media. The globalisation of capitalism means that even more so today, a hundred years after October 1917, the fate of each socialist or even left social-democratic attempt to build a fairer more democratic society is bound up with what happens around it. And the media in private and big-business hands has power to turn collective politics into a matter of individual personalities, mercilessly attacking those who dare to voice opposition to the rule of capital. There is no level playing field for the left now, and neither was there when Lenin was writing.

Lenin’s little pieces are framed by rambling contradictory essays by Slavoj Žižek which systematically turn the problems faced by the October Revolution against itself, gutting this particular historical process of economic-political content, reducing the Bolshevik’s plight to an abstract philosophical conundrum. Despite the claims to be defending and ‘repeating’ Lenin, Žižek actually explicitly drums home the lesson that the revolution as such, and any revolution as such, is doomed from the start: ‘the project was genuinely tragic: an authentic emancipatory vision condemned to failure by its very victory’. Read that last bit again, condemned by its very victory. Worse, Žižek repeats the line much-beloved by anti-communist writers in the last hundred years that there was no real difference between Lenin and Stalin. This book includes letters by Lenin in which he warns against the party allowing Stalin to accumulate too much power, the Central Control Commission is clearly designed to limit the emergence of a bureaucracy organised around powerful individuals. Despite this, Žižek claims that Leninism is the authentic core of Stalinism, that there is a direct line between one and the other. This, for Žižek, is why this is a ‘tragic’ situation, Lenin’s warnings, his interventions in 1922 and 1923 were doomed to fail.

Žižek has some other good advice for the left today. In place of principled and pragmatic attempts to defend the welfare state, we should abandon that kind of politics because the failure of the welfare state will always anyway play into the hands of the right. And, in place of attempts to build participatory democratic forms of power – that’s what the soviets in Russia were trying to do – we should look to a strong leader. I kid you not, Žižek argues that ‘the reference to a Leader is necessary’. We need, he says, to make the ‘wrong mistakes’. Maybe he has in mind his endorsement of Trump in the run-up to the US Presidential elections, elections for a ‘Leader’ (which Žižek always capitalises to show how important it is) who was intent on destroying any semblance of a welfare state. ‘Our task today’, he argues, is ‘precisely to reinvent emancipatory terror’. Well, thanks, but no thanks, this is bankrupt anti-Leninist stuff.

The title of the book – a narcissistic title which enables Žižek not only to reinvent himself as a co-author with Lenin but also to claim authorship of an old classic psychoanalytic text – is drawn from a paper by Freud called ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working Through’. Here Žižek is, to give him credit, remaining true to an old well-worked line of work that he has rehearsed in countless books, that it is possible to solve political problems with a dose of psychoanalysis. Lenin didn’t like psychoanalysis much but the October Revolution did open up space for a flourishing of interest in new therapeutic approaches, and there was much interest in Freud’s work. Trotsky, for example, was interested in psychoanalysis (and sent his daughter Zina to a leftist analyst in Berlin after his family had been expelled from the Soviet Union by Stalin). Psychoanalysis draws attention to historical materialist processes which go beyond the control of any particular conscious individual. What Žižek does well, as he has in many other of his writings, is show how a psychoanalytic conception of the role of the unconscious in political processes is very different from the appeal to the psychological individual as the ‘nerve centre of liberal ideology’. When you hear appeals to individual ‘choice’ you can be sure that bourgeois ideology is not far behind (as in the destruction of state welfare services warranted by ‘individual choice’, and as in the appeal to ‘freedom of the press’ resting on ‘individual choice’ of the reader to select among a number of corporate newspapers).

What Žižek does with psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is to turn it from being a clinical practice into some kind of weird worldview; then it seems possible to ‘apply’ it and correct the mistakes of Marxists. Psychoanalysis in Žižek’s hands turns specific political-economic problems such as those faced by Lenin into ‘genuinely tragic’ inevitable failures. This is why Žižek uses the term ‘Leader’ and ‘Master’ interchangeably. There is no way out and no way round the necessary role of a Leader – ‘a Master is needed’ he claims – and so, he claims, ‘the path to liberation’ is through ‘transference’. That is, the clinical phenomenon of transference in which the patient relieves their past loving and traumatic relationships with significant others is repeated, ‘transferred’ onto the figure of their analyst.

Žižek sets himself up as the analyst, the Master in this book, the Master who will be able even to out-Lenin Lenin, configuring himself as the super-Lenin who is actually remembering, repeating and working through not the revolutionary Lenin who is struggling with the question of how to defend the gains of October but a Lenin in line with bourgeois caricatures as if he was always already ‘the authentic core of Stalinism’. This is an abysmal reactionary book, a betrayal of what Lenin was up to which anticipates Stalinism’s eventual complete betrayal of October, a betrayal of Lenin.

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