Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 11, 2009

Žižek, Lenin and firing squads

Filed under: ussr — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

The latest New Left Review has an article by the Lacanian theorist Slavoj Žižek that returns to one of his favorite topics, Lenin. Frankly, I think he should stick to Lacan since his enthusiasms over the Russian revolutionary can only confuse the young radical deciding to check out Lenin after he received an imprimatur from the celebrated Lacanian.

Since the article titled “How to Begin from the Beginning” is behind a subscriber’s firewall, I would be happy to send it along to those who are curious to see what Žižek has to say about the early Soviet Union. It incorporates his by now familiar embrace of Lenin’s supposed ruthlessness, a stance that is calculated to annoy liberals in the academy rather than appeal to auto workers angry over getting screwed by the Obama administration. They call it épater le bourgeois, or shock the bourgeoisie. The term originated among French ‘decadent’ poets like Baudelaire who used hashish and absinthe. Žižek seeks the same effect by justifying Lenin’s “tough” policy toward Mensheviks and SR’s:

In answer to ‘the sermons’ on the NEP preached by Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries—‘The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again’—he told the Eleventh Party Congress:

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 ‘red terror’ should nonetheless be distinguished from Stalinist ‘totalitarianism’. In his memoirs, Sándor Márai provided a precise definition of the difference. Even in the most violent phases of the Leninist dictatorship, when those who opposed the revolution were brutally deprived of their right to (public free) speech, they were not deprived of their right to silence: they were allowed to withdraw into inner exile. An episode from the autumn of 1922 when, on Lenin’s instigation, the Bolsheviks were organizing the infamous ‘Philosophers’ Steamer’, is indicative here. When he learned that an old Menshevik historian on the list of those intellectuals to be expelled had withdrawn into private life to await death due to heavy illness, Lenin not only took him off the list, but ordered that he be given additional food coupons. Once the enemy resigned from political struggle, Lenin’s animosity stopped.

The ‘Philosopher’s Steamer’ referenced above is the subject of “Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia”, a book about the exile of 50 of Russia’s intelligentsia, including Nikolai Berdyaev, a philosopher whose writings were popular at Bard College when I was young. I have not read the book and have no plans to do so, but it does seem odd to consider this exile as a sign of rampant totalitarianism in the USSR, when the country was just about to pull back from the Spartan social and ideological norms of War Communism. Whatever one might believe about the NEP, it hardly seems consistent with the “totalitarian dungeon” image its enemies live by.

Of more interest is Žižek’s reference once again to Lenin’s statement to his opponents in 1922: “Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that.” That’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it?

As it turns out, this is the second time that Žižek has pulled this chestnut out of the fire in an effort to portray Lenin as the “tough guy” who would not put up with the weak-kneed liberals of today, with their tofu and their recyclables:

Corporations such as Whole Foods and Starbucks continue to enjoy favour among liberals even though they both engage in anti-union activities; the trick is that they sell products with a progressive spin: coffee made with beans bought at ‘fair-trade’ prices, expensive hybrid vehicles, etc. In short, without the antagonism between the included and the excluded, we may find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian, fighting poverty and disease, and Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist, mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire.

Boy, if we only had somebody like Lenin around today, he’d show those Starbucks patrons what’s what. He’d throw them out on the street with their stupid Macbooks and make the tables available for paying customers like me.

I want to conclude by reposting my January 31, 2004 response to Žižek’s initial misuse of the Lenin firing squad quote that I had run into in the pages of “In these Times”, a magazine famous far and wide for its fire-breathing revolutionary ruthlessness.

****

An “In These Times” article by cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek titled “What Is To Be Done (With Lenin)?” has been circulating on the Internet. Today, a link to it popped up on neoconservative Denis Dutton’s “Arts and Letters website, obviously a sign that Zizek was doing the left no favors when he wrote this article. Dutton is like a vacuum cleaner sweeping up every hostile reference to Marxism that can be found in the major media and academic journals. Despite his obligatory genuflection to Lenin, Zizek’s Lenin serves more as a token of ‘epater le bourgeois’ rebelliousness rather than a serious attempt to make him relevant in the year 2004.

Zizek’s article is a discourse on freedom, having more to do with Philosophy 101 than historical materialism. In defending the idea of relative freedom versus absolute freedom, he cites some remarks by Lenin 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.’

These rather blood-curdling words are interpreted by Zizek as a willingness on the part of the Soviet government to suppress criticisms that would undermine the workers’ and peasants’ government on behalf of the counterrevolution. In other words, Zizek’s Lenin favors shooting people who have ideological differences over how to build socialism, or so it would seem.

Without skipping a beat, Zizek amalgamates the execution of Mensheviks and SR’s found guilty of thought-crimes with the tendency in liberal societies to be offered meaningless choices between Coke and Pepsi or “Close Door” buttons in elevators that are not connected to anything. He concludes by saying:

This is why we tend to avoid Lenin today: not because he was an “enemy of freedom,” but because he reminds us of the fatal limitation of our freedoms; not because he offers us no choice, but because he reminds us that our “society of choices” precludes any true choice.

Although it seems implausible at best that Soviet firing squads in 1922 have anything remotely to do with choosing soft drinks, it might be useful to review exactly what Lenin was talking about in his speech–even though it might subvert the postmodernist exercise that Zizek is engaged in.

To begin with, it took a little bit of digging to find out where Lenin said these words. In poking around in Google (the MIA archives used a different translation so an exact match could not be found), I discovered that Zizek was not the only one lending credence to this version of Lenin as the High Executioner. The super-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party dotes on these words as well. In a book on their website titled “Another view of Stalin” by Ludo Martens, we discover that Lenin’s threats against his opponents demonstrate that he “vehemently dealt with counter-revolutionaries attacking the so-called `bureaucracy’ to overthrow the socialist régime.” In other words, Zizek’s Lenin and that of the PLP is a precursor to Stalin, implicitly and explicitly respectively.

At least I did learn from the PLP article the source of Lenin’s words, which was a Political Report of The Central Committee of the Communist Party at the Eleventh Congress on March 27, 1922. It can be read in its entirety at:

http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/mar/27.htm

If you do, you will discover nothing in Lenin’s speech to support such the interpretation of Zizek or the Progressive Labor Party. To begin with, the report is a defense of the turn away from War Communism toward the New Economic Policy, which most historians view as an end to economic, political and legal regimentation–including the use of the death penalty. Immediately upon taking power in 1917, the Bolsheviks did away with the death penalty. It was only restored during the civil war when White terror was unleashed on the civilian population. As soon as the White armies were defeated, there was no use for the firing squad. A January 17, 1920 decree of the Soviet government stated that since the counter-revolution had been defeated, there was no need for executions. Since this occurred more than two years before Lenin’s speech, it is a little difficult to figure out what Lenin was talking about.

As it turns out, Lenin was referring not to an actual firing-squad, but a figurative one as should be obvious from the paragraphs that immediately precede Zizek’s citation:

When a whole army (I speak in the FIGURATIVE sense)  [emphasis added] is in retreat, it cannot have the same morale as when it is advancing. At every step you find a certain mood of depression. We even had poets who wrote that people were cold and starving in Moscow, that “everything before was bright and beautiful, but now trade and profiteering abound”. We have had quite a number of poetic effusions of this sort.

Of course, retreat breeds all this. That is where the serious danger lies; it is terribly difficult to retreat after a great victorious advance, for the relations are entirely different. During a victorious advance, even if discipline is relaxed, everybody presses forward on his own accord. During a retreat, however, discipline must be more conscious and is a hundred times more necessary, because, when the entire army is in retreat, it does not know or see where it should halt. It sees only retreat; under such circumstances a few panic-stricken voices are, at times, enough to cause a stampede. The danger here is enormous. When a real army is in retreat, machine-guns are kept ready, and when an orderly retreat degenerates into a disorderly one, the command to fire is given, and quite rightly, too.

If, during an incredibly difficult retreat, when everything depends on preserving proper order, anyone spreads panic-even from the best of motives-the slightest breach of discipline must be punished severely, sternly, ruthlessly; and this applies not only to certain of our internal Party affairs, but also, and to a greater extent, to such gentry as the Mensheviks, and to all the gentry of the Two-and-a-Half International.

So Lenin’s words, taken literally by Zizek and the PLP, were specifically regarded by him as a figurative exercise. Lenin was talking about figurative armies, figurative retreats, figurative machine guns and figurative firing squads.

More to the point, there were no SR’s or Mensheviks in the USSR to brandish such threats against by 1922. They were no longer part of the political equation inside Russia and were left to issuing condemnations of the revolution from afar. Of course, the question would certainly arise as to why they were no longer inside the country. Had the Bolsheviks exiled their political adversaries in the same fashion that Lincoln arrested and deported a sitting Congressman to Canada who opposed the Civil War? Or in the fashion that FDR had imprisoned the leaders of the Trotskyist movement for criticizing the motives of the war with Germany and Japan?

In reality, repression of the SR’s and the Mensheviks had little to do with ideas about building socialism. In John Rees’s valuable “In Defense of October”, we learn that the infant Soviet republic faced the same kinds of threats as Cuba has faced since 1959. At the very time the White Army was slaughtering Soviet citizens and torching villages, foreign diplomats were organizing the nominally socialist opposition. R H Bruce Lockhart, the British diplomatic representative in Moscow, was instrumental in ensuring that Kerensky escaped from Russia after his unsuccessful military attempt to unseat the Bolsheviks. Rees writes:

Sidney Reilly, a British intelligence agent, was trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Lockhart that he ‘might be able to stage a counter-revolution in Moscow. But, according to Reilly, one part of his plan was prematurely put into effect in August 1918: Socialist Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan shot Lenin twice at point blank range, bringing him close to death. Earlier Reilly had managed to establish himself as a Soviet official with access to documents from Trotsky’s Foreign Ministry. And another British agent, George Hill, became a military adviser to Trotsky.

So the concrete application of the death penalty during the civil war has more to do with preventing assassination attempts by people like Fanny Kaplan rather than preventing alternative ideas about constructing socialism from reaching the Soviet people, just as the execution of hijackers in Cuba recently had more to do with preventing innocent lives being taken by desperate criminals than enforcing monolithism. Of course, in the early 1920s such defensive measures were interpreted by liberals as exercises in thought control and social repression just as they are today in the case of Cuba. It is singularly depressing, however, to see Zizek–a self-proclaimed fan of Lenin (in the same sense really as a fan of David Lynch movies)–giving credence to such an interpretation while nominally defending Lenin.

16 Comments »

  1. Pretty damn careless for a professional sociologist to quote such passages completely out of their original context, but at least the quotes weren’t completely fabricated like they allegedly were in the Jared Diamond saga. Both academic and journalistic fact checking standards certainly have suffered, along with the Constitution, in this neo-conservative era.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 11, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

  2. It seems like Žižek is not the only one who quotes out of context. In the ‘offending’ article in the New Left Review, indeed, in the paragraph immediately preceding the one you quote, Žižek quotes the context your Google quest uncovered. Perhaps Žižek is being as figurative as Lenin? Or, perhaps more accurately, where Lenin uses an analogy to give lethal force to his figurative point, Žižek uses the same to make his lethal literalism seem possible.

    Comment by Blind Man — May 12, 2009 @ 12:28 am

  3. I have not read the book and have no plans to do so, but it does seem odd to consider this exile as a sign of rampant totalitarianism in the USSR, when the country was just about to pull back from the Spartan social and ideological norms of War Communism.

    It also seems odd of you to say this immediately after quoting Žižek specifically arguing that the exodus of the Philosopher’s Steamer was not indicative of totalitaranism.

    Comment by skip — May 12, 2009 @ 6:39 am

  4. Not so odd. Zizek’s article tries to depict Lenin as both ruthless and reasonable.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 12, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  5. Zizek’s metaphors are numbingly banal. A wet-under-the-ears poster at Gawker usually does as well, or better. He writes as if he perpetrated a critical breakthrough in his “discovery” of a run-of-the-mill case of greenwashing. How did this non-entity become famous again? It’s amazing.

    Comment by ld — May 12, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  6. Hi Louis,

    Could you send that article? cheers.

    Comment by johng — May 13, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

  7. Hi interesting subject – could you please send me the NLR article?

    Comment by Theo — May 15, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

  8. hello, could you please send me the NLR article?

    Comment by tommunist — June 5, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

  9. I actually like Zizek a lot, not because I think he’s a terribly impressive intellectual, or because I agree with most of what he saids, but mostly because he’s entertaining, he’s like the Chris Hitchens of academia for me in this respect.

    “It incorporates his by now familiar embrace of Lenin’s supposed ruthlessness, a stance that is calculated to annoy liberals in the academy rather than appeal to auto workers angry over getting screwed by the Obama administration.”

    I completely agree with this point. And I applaud you far calling him out on pulling that Lenin quote out of context, but I still think his fundamental point was correct.

    Though this part of your review I think is wrong, Zizek isn’t making a case that Lenin was a totalitarian here, just authoritarian, and given the historic circumstances of the Russian Revolution the latter was necessary:

    “I have not read the book and have no plans to do so, but it does seem odd to consider this exile as a sign of rampant totalitarianism in the USSR, when the country was just about to pull back from the Spartan social and ideological norms of War Communism. Whatever one might believe about the NEP, it hardly seems consistent with the “totalitarian dungeon” image its enemies live by.”

    I feel like Zizek’s view of the Red Terror, etc etc make the Jacobins seem like proto-Marxists (I should say Leninists?), is this view actually accurate?

    Comment by bhaskar — June 10, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

  10. “As it turns out, Lenin was referring not to an actual firing-squad, but a figurative one”

    Of course he was, and isn’t it always so?

    Comment by vanderleun — July 11, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

  11. Not really. During the civil war, he was not being figurative at all. That is why Zizek is so misleading. He confuses that period with the NEP when nobody was being executed.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 11, 2009 @ 8:19 pm

  12. […] course Zizek is wrong, a lot, but he’s a lot more entertaining than your favorite academic leftist (our fan club is […]

    Pingback by The “Vulture Theory” of Socialism — The Activist — July 25, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

  13. […] yes, he did just say “disciplinary terror”. Now, as this blogger suggests, there is probably more than a hint of épater le bourgeois to this: a desire to shock […]

    Pingback by Confessing Evangelical » Time for some “disciplinary terror”? Try again. — December 14, 2009 @ 9:45 am

  14. Dear Louis,
    If you look in Zizek’s book the Parallax View (with a picture of “Lenin at the Smolny” on the cover I might add) he clearly uses the “when an army is in retreat, a hundred times more discipline is required…”( p. 4 Parallax View) right before the quote that you argue that he uses out of context. I think you totally miss the point. Zizek wants us to return to the kind of inventive thought that lenin embodies. He is not trying to smear him as some Stalinist. He is saying that Lenin’s “strategic insight is crucial (p. 4)” to fight against those sciences today that are “materialist dialectic” that are between materialism and idealist obscurantism. In any case I think the criticism of this great guy Slavoj is really misplaced. He sees, as you do, Marxism in great retreat and ideological confusion. Zizek wants to help to right this confusions ass i think that you do as well. He is really committed to re-enlivening the emancipatory projects of humanity that you write about having had been a part. Please take a look at all of his insights and you will see him, I think, as anything but a post-modernist, or one who wants to paint Lenin as evil.
    Thanks

    Comment by Nicholas — January 20, 2010 @ 6:13 am

  15. […] Proyect, for one, accuses Žižek of being a ‘shock jock’ and has taken issue with his misrepresentation of Lenin merely to outrage liberals. Richard Seymour portrays him as a racist, cheering on pogroms against the Roma—a charge […]

    Pingback by In defence of Slavoj Žižek « Necessary Agitation — January 3, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

  16. its a great reply on this article that done by Nicholas ..

    comradly thanx

    Comment by imad asaalwa — June 17, 2011 @ 12:33 am


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