The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Lenin states that,
“If the Bolshevik Revolution is — as some people have called it — the most significant political event of the 20th century, then Lenin must for good or ill be considered the century’s most significant political leader. Not only in the scholarly circles of the former Soviet Union, but even among many non-Communist scholars, he has been regarded as both the greatest revolutionary leader and revolutionary statesman in history, as well as the greatest revolutionary thinker since Marx.”
Lenin is the most controversial figure in the history of Marxism, and perhaps one of the most controversial figures in all of history. As such, he is an impossible figure for sober consideration, without polemic. Nevertheless, it has become impossible, also, after Lenin, to consider Marxism without reference to him. Broadly, Marxism is divided into avowedly “Leninist” and “anti-Leninist” tendencies. In what ways was Lenin either an advance or a calamity for Marxism? But there is another way of approaching Lenin, which is as an expression of the historical crisis of Marxism. In other words, Lenin as a historical figure is unavoidably significant as manifesting a crisis of Marxism. The question is how Lenin provided the basis for advancing that crisis, how the polarization around Lenin could provide the basis for advancing the potential transformation of Marxism, in terms of resolving certain problems.
The Frankfurt School Critical Theorist Theodor Adorno, in his 1966 book Negative Dialectics, wrote of the degeneration of Marxism due to “dogmatization and thought-taboos.” There is no other figure in the history of Marxism who has been subject to such “dogmatization and thought-taboos” as much as Lenin.
It is important to note as well that Adorno himself sought to remain, as he put it, “faithful to Marx, Engels and Lenin, while keeping up with culture at its most advanced,” to which his colleague Max Horkheimer replied, simply, “Who would not subscribe to that?”
Today, such a proposition seems especially implausible, in many ways. Yet perhaps the memory of Lenin haunts us still, however obscurely.
Panel held at the Marxist Literary Group Summer 2011 Institute on Culture and Society at the Institute for the Humanities, University of Illinois at Chicago on June 22, 2011
The legacy of revolution 1917-19 in Russia, Germany, Hungary and Italy is concentrated above all in the historical figures Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, leaders of the Left in the Second International (1889-1914) — what they called “revolutionary social democracy” — in the period preceding the crisis of war, revolution, counterrevolution and civil war in World War I and its aftermath. In 1920, Georg Lukács summed up this experience as follows: “[T]he crisis [of capital] remains permanent, it goes back to its starting-point, repeats the cycle until after infinite sufferings and terrible detours the school of history completes the education of the proletariat and confers upon it the leadership of mankind. . . . Of course this uncertainty and lack of clarity are themselves the symptoms of the crisis in bourgeois society. As the product of capitalism the proletariat must necessarily be subject to the modes of existence of its creator. . . . inhumanity and reification.” Nonetheless, these Marxists understood their politics as being “on the basis of capitalism” itself (Lenin). How were the 2nd Intl. radicals, importantly, critics, and not merely advocates, of their own political movement? What is the legacy of these figures today, after the 20th century — as Walter Benjamin said in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “against the grain” of their time, reaching beyond it? How did Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky contribute to the potential advancement and transformation of Marxism, in and through the crisis of Marxism in the early 20th century? How can we return to these figures productively, today, to learn the lessons of their history?
A panel discussion organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society, held on March 19, 2011 at Left Forum, Pace University.
Panel Abstract: What was distinctive about Vladimir Lenin's Marxism? What was its relationship to the other forms of Marxism and Marxists of his era? Was Lenin orthodox or heterodox? Was there a "unity" to Lenin's political thought, as Georg Lukacs argued, or do his major works -- What is to Be Done? (1902), Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), The State and Revolution (1917), "Left-Wing Communism": An Infantile Disorder? (1920) -- express distinctive and even contradictory phases in Lenin's political development? How did Lenin's Marxism overcome -- or not -- other competing forms of Marxism? How should we understand Lenin's historical contribution to Marxism, today?