[Review of Lenin by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, translated by George Holoch. Holmes & Meier]
The Left is undergoing a shattering experience: the progressive movement is being compelled to reinvent its whole project. What tends to be forgotten, however, is that a similar experience gave birth to Leninism. Consider Lenin’s shock when, in the autumn of 1914, every European social democratic party except the Serbs’ followed the ‘patriotic line’. How difficult it must have been, at a time when military conflict had cut the European continent in half, not to take sides. Think how many supposedly independent-minded intellectuals, Freud included, succumbed, if only briefly, to the nationalist temptation.
In 1914, an entire world disappeared, taking with it not only the bourgeois faith in progress, but the socialist movement that accompanied it. Lenin (the Lenin of What Is to Be Done?) felt the ground fall away from beneath his feet – there was, in his desperate reaction, no sense of satisfaction, no desire to say ‘I told you so.’ At the same time, the catastrophe made possible the key Leninist Event: the overcoming of the evolutionary historicism of the Second International. The kernel of the Leninist ‘utopia’ – the radical imperative to smash the bourgeois state and invent a new communal social form without a standing army, police force or bureaucracy, in which all could take part in the administration of social matters – arises directly from the ashes of 1914. It wasn’t a theoretical project for some distant future: in October 1917, Lenin claimed that ‘we can at once set in motion a state apparatus consisting of ten if not twenty million people.’ What we should recognise is the ‘madness’ (in the Kierkegaardian sense) of this utopia – in this context, Stalinism stands for a return to ‘common sense’. The explosive potential of The State and Revolution can’t be overestimated: in its pages, as Neil Harding wrote in Leninism (1996), ‘the vocabulary and grammar of the Western tradition of politics was abruptly dispensed with.’
What followed can be called, borrowing the title of Althusser’s text on Machiavelli, la solitude de Lenine: a time when he stood alone, struggling against the current in his own party. When, in his ‘April Theses’ of 1917, Lenin identified the Augenblick, the unique chance for a revolution, the initial response on the part of a large majority of his party colleagues was either stupor or contempt. No prominent Bolshevik leader supported his call to revolution, and the editorial board of Pravda took the extraordinary step of dissociating themselves and the Party from Lenin’s proposals. Bogdanov characterised the ‘April Theses’ as ‘the delirium of a madman’; Nadezhda Krupskaya concluded: ‘I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.’
Indispensable though Lenin’s personal intervention was, the story of the October Revolution should not be turned into the myth of a lone genius. Lenin succeeded because his appeal, while bypassing the party nomenklatura, was understood at the level of revolutionary micropolitics: local committees were set up throughout Russia’s big cities, determined to ignore the authority of the ‘legitimate’ government and to take things into their own hands.
In the spring of 1917, Lenin was fully aware of the paradox of the situation: now that the February Revolution had toppled the tsarist regime, Russia was the most democratic country in Europe, with an unprecedented degree of mass mobilisation, and freedom of organisation and of the press – and yet this freedom made everything ambiguous. If there is a common thread running through everything Lenin wrote between the February and October Revolutions, it is his insistence on the gap that separates the political struggle from its definable goals: immediate peace, the redistribution of land and, of course, the giving over of ‘all power to the soviets’, that is, the dismantling of existing state apparatuses and their replacement with new commune-like forms of social management. This is the gap between revolution in the sense of the imaginary explosion of freedom at the sublime moment of universal solidarity when ‘everything seems possible,’ and the hard work of social reconstruction which must be performed if this explosion is to leave any traces in the social edifice.
This gap – which recalls the interval between 1789 and 1793 in the French Revolution – is the space of Lenin’s unique intervention. The fundamental lesson of revolutionary materialism is that revolution must strike twice. It is not that the first moment has the form of a revolution, with the substance having to be filled in later, but rather the opposite: the first revolution retains the old mindset, the belief that freedom and justice can be achieved if we simply use the already-existing state apparatus and its democratic mechanisms, that the ‘good’ party might win a free election and implement the socialist transformation ‘legally’. (The clearest expression of this illusion is Karl Kautsky’s thesis, formulated in the 1920s, that the logical form of the first stage leading from capitalism to socialism would be a parliamentary coalition of bourgeois and proletarian parties.) Those who oscillate, and are afraid to take the second step of overcoming the old forms, are those who (in Robespierre’s words) want a ‘revolution without revolution’.
In his writings of 1917, Lenin saves his most acerbic irony for those who engage in a vain search for some kind of guarantee for the revolution, either in the guise of a reified notion of social necessity (‘it’s too early for the socialist revolution, the working class isn’t yet mature’), or of a normative, democratic legitimacy (‘the majority of the population isn’t on our side, so the revolution would not really be democratic’). It is as if the revolutionary agent requires the permission of some representative of the Other before he risks seizing state power. For Lenin, as for Lacan, the revolution ‘ne s’autorise que d’elle-même’. The wariness of taking power prematurely, the search for a guarantee, is an expression of fear before the abyss. This is what Lenin repeatedly denounces as ‘opportunism’: an inherently false position which hides fear behind a protective screen of supposedly objective facts, laws or norms. The first step in combatting it is to announce clearly: ‘What, then, is to be done? We must aussprechen was ist, “state the facts”, admit the truth that there is a tendency, or an opinion, in our Central Committee . . .’
What happened when Lenin became more conscious of the limitations of Bolshevik power?