I am writing with some notes and suggestions on Lenin’s What is to be done? (1902).
I’d like to start with a quotation from Lenin’s first footnote, in the chapter “Dogmatism and Freedom of Criticism:”
“At the present time (as is now evident), the English Fabians, the French Ministerialists, the German Bernsteinians, and the Russian Critics all belong to the same family, all extol each other, learn from each other, and together take up arms against “dogmatic” Marxism. In this first really international battle with socialist opportunism, international revolutionary Social-Democracy will perhaps become sufficiently strengthened to put an end to the political reaction that has long reigned in Europe? — Lenin”
What’s remarkable about this footnote is that Lenin thinks that winning the dispute against Marxist revisionism and social democratic reformism will signal the beginning of “putting an end to political reaction” more generally! — In other words, that the fight against the Right begins with the bad “Left!” This can only be so through a prioritization of consciousness.
Clearly there is affinity here of Lenin with our project in Platypus. Lenin was not the “actionist” and did not simply prioritize practice over theory, of which he might be accused — nor was he simply the “pragmatist” for which he might be embraced!
This points to the true character of the overall issue of “tailism” that is at the heart of Lenin’s pamphlet. This should be approached as a matter of theory and practice.
The historical distinction, not to be downplayed, between Lenin’s moment and ours, is that his critique of tailism is in the context of a period of political radicalization of the workers’ movement of Russia, which had gone through rapid growth after a period of intensive industrialization in the last years of the 19th Century.
Lenin’s concern is the same as that expressed by Rosa Luxemburg, that the (revolutionary Marxist) Social Democrats be able to “lead and shape” events rather than following behind (“tailing after”) them impotently, which will prevent effective political action.
This is the central concern of Lenin’s focus on organization. How does “social democratic” (revolutionary Marxist) consciousness anticipate, through a long historical view, and therefore could take a leading role in the spontaneity of either economic or liberal social-political struggles under capital, and transform these into the struggle to overcome capital?
At the level of consciousness and ideology, this is related to Luxemburg’s discussion in Reform or Revolution? of how challenges to Marxism must take the guise of Marxism — and discussion by Korsch in “Marxism and Philosophy” that developments in Marxism must take the form of a “return to Marx.” In Lenin’s case, there was the phenomenon of the Russian intelligentsia being swept up in a fashion for Marxism. So Lenin is concerned first and foremost in attacking this liberalism in the guise of “Marxism,” as Luxemburg was doing in attacking the revisionist “Marxists” in Reform or Revolution?
Lenin’s pamphlet was an attempt to draw organizational consequences in the Russian social democratic party from the international revisionist debate. — But there is a serious question about whether it is possible to find an organizational solution to the problem of opportunism, which is what the substance was of Luxemburg’s critique of Lenin in her essay on “Organizational Questions of Russian Social Democracy” (republished later in English under the scurrilous title added by an American Cold War editor, “Leninism or Marxism?”).
Retaining the focus on “tailism,” the passive expectancy and contemplative comportment of the pseudo-”Left” has long been a danger, but one especially so since the 1960s “New Left.” (It is a deeply ingrained problem that I tried to highlight in my previous notes on Korsch.)
For example the critical Marxist intellectuals from whom we might take inspiration from the ’60s generation, Postone, Reed, Halliday, Mitchell, et al., all exhibit this problem, of shearing theoretical analysis from political ideology, so that the problem of adequate consciousness, let alone political action, becomes a paralyzed paradox. The real stakes of intellectual action become impossible to reckon, and so theory and practice remain separated in a freewheeling manner: it never becomes a question, as it was for Lenin — and Luxemburg — of “what is to be done?”
Instead, it becomes a self-flagellation of the intellectuals, for whom Adorno’s introductory remarks in Negative Dialectics have an additional meaning, different from their original context, for there is expressed in another form the “defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.” — To avoid or fail to task oneself in one’s own thinking and action with the question of “what is to be done?” is to defeat one’s reason.
For the point is not to try to “recognize” the emancipatory potential of various social-political phenomena, but the attempt to transform these endemic discontents in an emancipatory direction. More specifically, Marx had already recognized the emancipatory potential of the constitutive contradiction of the struggles of the working class (as such) under capital. The point for Lenin and Luxemburg was how to push the envelope of these in a (self-)transformative direction, how to follow Marx’s prognosis that the class struggle of the proletariat pointed beyond itself.
The point of Lenin was not, for example, to “recognize” the “national struggles” (struggles against “national” oppression), but to find how the proletariat could use these to broaden its leadership in the struggle to transform (global) society.
Lenin and Luxemburg took a great deal for granted, and were concerned first and foremost with the danger of what in their time was a rather advanced state of the class struggle of the proletariat from being blunted and hemmed in by the horizons of bourgeois society, or “opportunism” (what Moishe Postone calls “proletarian/capital-constitutive consciousness/politics”).
But by the 1960s (and certainly also today!) the problem is quite different: it was not the matter of maintaining the advanced progress and rooting out the inherent dangers of relapse to “bourgeois” terms in the proletarian-socialist class struggle of the workers (what Lukacs called “reification,” by which he meant the “advanced socialist” consciousness of the WWI-era Marxist revisionists like Kautsky, and not merely the primordial everyday consciousness of the workers under capitalism), but the constitution of the working class as a social (let alone political) force of any kind.
This is why our project is not so much one of the “proletariat” but more basically of the “Left.” Our task is to clarify what it means to be progressive-emancipatory and then to situate the concrete realities of contemporary capitalism within this long historical view.
In this our task is similar to Lenin’s, but coarser and less rigorously specified — as it had been so by Lenin’s greater context of the developed 2nd International Marxist socialist workers’ movement.
Leaving aside Lenin and Luxemburg, today we are in a worse position than Marx, who characterized his project as bringing to consciousness what people were already struggling for and thus pushing their struggle further, beyond itself.
In the face of the spiraling degenerate barbarism of the present, we might be tempted to say that even in their most obtuse conservative-reactionary forms people are yet still struggling for emancipation from capitalism and not towards its further deepening barbarism. (This was what Terry Eagleton implied in his recent talk at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — Eagleton gave yet another expression of how “the Left is the Right!”)
The choice of what to “tail” behind today is much worse than in Lenin or Marx’s time. It is not a matter of the danger of our abdicating leadership of and thus betraying (potentially) progressive-emancipatory social-political forces, but of resisting the temptation to dress up as progressive (or even human) what is manifestly not.
This is why it is most important for us in Platypus to emphasize that the last thing the historical revolutionary Marxist Left wanted to do was be the most sophisticated chroniclers or apologists for what was already happening. They wanted to change the world, which for them began, first and foremost, with transforming the best social struggles of their time in a deeper and further emancipatory direction.
We want to do the same, but, to avoid the opportunism/tailism Luxemburg and Lenin sought to specify in a more acute manner, we start with a much more obtuse and recalcitrant object, not an advanced workers’ movement but freewheeling capitalism and various despairing conservative-reactionary responses to it. We have much less at our disposal to “transform,” so we must begin instead with discrimination, sorting and separating out, through “ruthless criticism of everything existing.” Starting out, we need to not assume but to see if there’s anything there for us to work with at all.
We wish we could share Lenin’s impatience with reformist formulations like “giving the economic struggle itself a political character,” when today there is not even what Lenin or Luxemburg would have recognized as the merely “economic” struggles by the working class.
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Lenin’s What is to be done? is a truly rich text. What I appreciate most about it is the spirit with which it’s imbued, from the very subtitle, “Burning questions of our movement,” to its discussions of theoretical struggle, workerist economism as the flip side of romantic revolutionary terrorism of the intelligentsia, and the fetishism of “democracy” as epitome of “primitiveness” among both workers and students.
So many of the problems any possible Left would face and has faced is confronted with amazing single-minded clarity by Lenin.
One of my favorite sections is 5.1/A “Who was offended by [Lenin's previous article] ‘Where to begin?’.”
Lenin’s describing in detail the ambivalent vacillations of his opponents in the Russian Social Democratic Party in both their rhetoric and actions reminds me of the kind of pathological response Platypus has provoked among both “friends” and enemies.
I appreciate the humor with which Lenin responded to the apparent “monstrosity” of his proposals in his intervention in the controversies on the Left of his day.
The picture Lenin portrays of the Russian “Left” of his time ought to ring too true for us in the present. But what Lenin attributed to the “primitiveness” of “Russian conditions” (i.e., the immaturity of the *workers movement* there) we need to generalize much more broadly. (As will be shown in the Spartacist pamphlet on Lenin and the Vanguard Party we’re reading next week, as was also shown in Nettl’s article, Lenin’s attitude towards problems of theory and organized practice would have benefited the entire 2nd Intl. in this period and not only the Russian party.)
When we provoke offense, we need to pay close attention and analyze this, because the truth of our situation is thus revealed, from which both we and others need to learn. Thus there’s some point to a certain reflexivity permeating all our work. We need others (externally) to be constantly asking themselves bemusedly “What is Platypus?” while we go about deliberately (internally) asking this of ourselves.
As Spencer put it last Fall in what should become one of our most important catchphrases of recent experience, Platypus aims to “provoke and organize the pathology of the ‘Left’.”
This is modeled on the procedure of Freudian psychoanalysis — Richard has described Platypus as “psychoanalysis for the Left.” (Amanda Armstrong’s article in the PR #2 Feb. ’08 on Freud and Castoriadis is good for pointing out how the constitutive limits of psychoanalysis are homologous to — and exist for the same reasons as — those of politics — and of pedagogy!)
Our principal problem in Platypus comes when we have been denied/denied ourselves opportunities for occasioning, following through on and sustaining the kind of provocative pedagogical exercises that are our raison d’etre.
We need to extend the range and depth of our provocations (for us as well as others) to recognize that the “Left is dead!” / “the Left is the Right!” There are a myriad of concrete occasions for this that remain to be explored, and some we have already done that need (constant, if modulated) repeating — the essence of pedagogy.
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“Neo-coms” vs. “neo-cons?” — Platypus’s “neo-Leninism”
At an early point in our development of the Platypus project, there was some consideration of characterizing Platypus as a “neo-com” project, that is, neo-communism — against and complementary to the neo-cons of neo-conservatism, for instance. — The idea was that, just as the decay, disintegration and decomposition of the Left had spawned such hybrid phenomena as neoconservatism, perhaps we were not so much the reconnection with and continuation of an earlier revolutionary Marxist tradition but its transformation, under the guise, however, of such historical memory (as Korsch pointed out in “Marxism and Philosophy” that we read last week, about Luxemburg and Lenin’s ostensible “return to Marx” — see my previous post on this).
So we might say that Platypus is neo-”Leninist” — but in a completely different way than the “Leninism” of the sectarian (including academic) “Left.”
For instance, there was a conference in 2001 that issued an edited anthology of essays published as Lenin Reloaded (Duke, 2007), with contributions by Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Kevin Anderson, Lars Lih, Antonio Negri, Terry Eagleton, Alex Callinicos, Daniel Bensaid, Etienne Balibar, et al. — most of which is rehash of stale banalities when not just hand-wringing over how pathetic the “Left” has become since “Leninism” was unceremoniously ditched by the 1960s “New Left” over the course of 1968-89.
So, in what way would Platypus be neo-Leninist differently from the ultimately shallow provocations of a Zizek, for instance?
Unlike most on the (ex-)sectarian “Left,” and (academic) readers of Lenin, we don’t find him to be particularly original regarding “organization” (as Luxemburg biographer J. P. Nettl pointed out in his 1965 article on “The German SPD 1889-1914 as political model” that we read a few weeks ago, all Lenin did was address the issue in a way other 2nd International Marxists had not), and we do not regard him differently than, e.g., Rosa Luxemburg. — And we, following Lukacs and Korsch (and Benjamin and Adorno) find Luxemburg and Lenin to share a focus on the importance of *consciousness*. It is not so much that Lenin was what Lukacs called him eulogistically in 1924, a “theoretician of practice,” but rather that Lenin, like Luxemburg (in her 1900 pamphlet on Reform of Revolution? that we read a couple of weeks ago), tried to address the (problematic) relation of theory to practice.
As Nettl pointed out in the article we read, unlike Kautsky, who simply provided “Marxist” theoretical rationalizations for whatever the German SPD (or 2nd Intl. Marxism more generally) did tactically and organizationally, Luxemburg and Lenin took seriously the matter of how Marx’s critique of capital ought to affect practice. It was Bernstein (along with Kautsky) who prioritized “practice” with his formulation that the “movement is everything and the goal nothing,” whereas Luxemburg and Lenin essentially replied to this that the movement without the goal — of revolutionary socialism — was “nothing.” — As it in fact came to be, historically, with the obscuring and dropping of the goal, the lowering and liquidation of the horizon of possibility that came with the degradation of Marxism, first through its vulgarization in the 2nd Intl. and its Stalinization in the trajectory of the 3rd Intl. after the failure of the revolution that had opened in 1917-19 (which affected even the ostensible opponents of Stalinism in Trotskyism, etc.). Lenin, as much as Luxemburg, was about the memory and recovery of that original critical Marxian horizon of the possibility of effective historical thought and action that could lead beyond capital.
A key aspect of the present putrescence of the “Left” is the terror with which it meets the question of effective consciousness (let alone organized politics), which expresses the degradation and degeneration and ultimate loss of the insights into the problem of theory and practice that had been manifested by Lukacs, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno — in the wake of Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky.
Nevertheless, there remains a sense that there was something to these thinkers’ work, and hence something to the possibility of political action that provoked such theoretical reflection and recognition.
Platypus seeks to (pre)serve this sense, and to free it from what Adorno called (in Negative Dialectics, 1966), “dogmatization and thought taboos,” allowing it to find renewed expression and elaboration for the possibility of a future Left worthy of the name.
Lenin remains as essential to this as he was originally, in both theory and practice.