What Is To Be Done (With Lenin)?

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died on January 21 1924, 80 years ago—does the embarrassed silence over his name mean that he died twice, that his legacy is also dead? His insensitivity toward personal freedoms is effectively foreign to our liberal-tolerant sensibility – who, today, would not experience a shudder apropos his dismissive remarks against the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionaries’ critique of the Bolshevik power in 1922?

“Indeed, the sermons which…the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: ‘The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again.’ But we say in reply: ‘Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements.’”

This dismissive attitude towards the “liberal” notion of freedom accounts for Lenin’s bad reputation among liberals. Their case largely rests upon their rejection of the standard Marxist-Leninist opposition of “formal” and “actual” freedom, but as even ;eftist liberals like Claude Lefort emphasize again and again, freedom is in its very notion “formal,” so that “actual freedom” equals the lack of freedom. Lenin is best remembered for his famous retort “Freedom – yes, but for whom? To do what?” For him, in the above-quoted case of the Mensheviks, their “freedom” to criticize the Bolshevik government effectively amounted to the “freedom” to undermine the workers’ and peasants’ government on behalf of the counterrevolution.

But today, after the terrifying experience of the Really Existing Socialism, is it not more than obvious where the fault of this reasoning resides? First, it reduces a historical constellation to a closed, fully contextualized situation in which the “objective” consequences of one’s acts are fully determined (“independent of your intentions, what you are doing now objectively serves…”). Second, the position of enunciation of such statements usurps the right to decide what your acts “objectively mean,” so that their apparent “objectivism” is the form of its opposite, a thorough subjectivism: I decide what your acts objectively mean, since I define the context of a situation (say, if I conceive of my power as the immediate equivalent/expression of the power of the working class, then everyone who opposes me is “objectively” an enemy of the working class).

Is this, however, the whole story?

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on January 21st, 2004. (full text).]

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