Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 3, 2011

Zizek’s Lenin and Ours

Filed under: democracy,Lenin,Zizek — louisproyect @ 2:12 pm

For reasons I don’t quite understand, anytime I write anything about Zizek, it generates exceptional traffic here. This may be because there is a lot of interest in Zizek or because he brings out the best (worst?) in me. I confess that Binh was probably right when he described Zizek as a troll not worth feeding, but I do look forward to increased traffic on my blog in the hope that new readers will find other articles useful as well. The one below was written before I began blogging. You can find all my articles, both from that period and afterwards, at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mypage.htm.

Zizek’s Lenin and Ours

Posted to http://www.marxmail.org on January 31, 2004

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 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.


  1. Part misogynist, part racist, he deliberately quotes Lenin out of context in the most pernicious way, and boils the best hope for progress down to a vote for Obama. What a terrific contribution to the humanities!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 3, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

  2. I am afraid he does bring the worst of you. ZZ is a circus clown, using Lenin like a big fake bald head to generate awe. And you are like a circus critic saying, “man! this bald head doesn’t look like a real bold head at all.” If you applied to him the type of reading that you do when you analyze films, I think the result would be a lot more enlightening. It’s good that you correct the misinformation about Lenin, and I do find that very educational, but at the same time, it fails as a critique because what you care about here doesn’t interest ZZ and doesn’t interest most people who listen to him.

    Comment by Evildoer — November 3, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

  3. “Binh was probably right when he described Zizek as a troll not worth feeding” Binh is absolutely right; Zizek is a product of the post-Soviet slump in the class struggle that is now coming to an end. It will also bring an end to the sort of space Zizek occupied, and this to some extent accounts to his polemic against “democracy”, here not limited to the critique of the formal bourgeois structure, but also extended to the mass struggle for a democracy in practice, one that seeks to correspond to the real material conditions of production. That of course requires a worker’s democracy, socialism.

    While on the subject of trolls, Binh is absolutely wrong, however, to label as “ultra-left trolls” those who critically characterize sections of the U.S. left as part of an “official” , “Democratic Party Left”. Such a label is ridiculous on the face of it; it would be impossible to understand anything about the U.S. political scene – especially now – without understanding that there exists a structured Democratic Party Left (DPL) acting in a manner consistent with that structure. It doesn’t follow from that analysis that the independent left cannot ever “work” with the DPL on particular issues; that sort of direct, simplistic application of an abstract deduction upon practical situations *would* be variously ultra-leftist or sectarian.

    But I’ll leave off here. It’s understood that Unrepentant Marxist has a purpose different from the Marxmail list (though that difference is not often clear to me), but I’d wish that more column space was expended on the present situation (Euro crisis, OWS etc) and less on “has-beens in their own time” like Zizek. The film/music reviews and the articles on the transition debates, etc., are fine though.

    Comment by Matt — November 3, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

  4. Louis you have adopted the correct (dare I say Leninist) strategy for dealing with trolls like Zizek: exploiting his idiocy for your own political ends and hopefully exposing people who follow him to Marxist politics.

    Matt’s remark refers to a comment I left at Lenin’s Tomb regarding the folks who jumped at the opportunity to show their “revolutionary” credentials by slamming Angela Davis’ position on the Democratic Party in a post about her speech at an Occupy event: http://leninology.blogspot.com/2011/10/angela-davis-at-occupy-philly.html I stand by my comment there because I don’t see how it is productive or useful to go after people on this question at this stage of the movement, especially when said people are not actually trying to co-opt the movement. Playing funeral music at a wedding helps no one.

    Comment by Binh — November 3, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

  5. Not yet too familiar with Zizek’s writings but he rambled on ineffectually in the commentaries attached to the film “Children of Men”. And I fucking hate David Lynch movies. So, I wonder if I should bother to read Zizek when I can barely find time to read John Bellamy Foster?

    Comment by Leon — November 3, 2011 @ 11:06 pm

  6. @ #5 Bihn: re: [the folks who jumped at the opportunity to show their “revolutionary” credentials by slamming Angela Davis’ position on the Democratic Party in a post about her speech at an Occupy event:]

    Yes Bihn, this is indeed a clear example of an odious kind of left “sectarianism” but it’s not the kind of left “sectarianism” that L.Proyect typically rails against, which is the Camejoist critique against Cannonism which he argues transmogrified the SWP into a sort of workerist cult-of personality lead by Jack Barnes.

    Yet despite the myriad of sins Barnes and his cult are guilty of — “slamming” people like Angela Davis or “talking down” to oppressed minorities in public isn’t one of them.

    As we discussed on another “occupy comments” blog/post here: the zealous young white male activists, particularly of the ISO student variety that would have the knuckleheaded gall to be “slamming Angela Davis’s position” amidst an actual occupy event wherein a socialist revolutionary’s duty is to defer patiently to the insights of living (and dead) martyrs of historically oppressed peoples is definitely today a novel strain of left sectarianism, but since that behavior, as terrible as it is, has not been (and would likely never be) replicated by any of the other typical Marxist groups that have been labelled as “sectarian” — it’s not liable to last long as a phenomena insofar as such behavior is anathema to lasting as a viable group amidst a modern urban mass & growing movement like OWS, that is, they’ll be pushed aside by events.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 4, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

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