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In one of his final columns for CounterPunch (July 6-8, 2012), Alexander Cockburn gently took to task those of us, himself included, who went overboard investing hope in the Occupy movements and other spontaneous domestic uprisings of 2011. Too many of us – I among them – were so swept up by the enthusiasms of the moment that we forgot some well-established truths. As so often before, Cockburn’s words gave voice to what I along with many others had already come to realize, but was not yet ready to articulate. Now, however, there is no excuse; the time is past due to recall the basics. This was Cockburn’s point. It is therefore to his memory that I dedicate this appreciation of one of the most castigated but also one of greatest and most pertinent classics of political thought.
Nearly eleven decades have passed since the publication of V.I. Lenin’s “What Is To Be Done?” This remarkable pamphlet – actually, a short book — was a political intervention focused on issues confronting the Russian Social Democratic movement at the dawn of the twentieth century. Much or its content is peculiar to the time and place of its composition.
There is therefore a sense in which, with each passing year, it becomes increasingly anachronistic. Even so, it is not just the pamphlet’s title question that remains timely. For although it was not intended as a theoretical treatise, it was evident from the beginning that it can be read as one and that, in that capacity, it can be enormously enlightening.
Ironically, this has never been truer than it now is, and not just in parts of the world that, like Russia in 1903, are comparatively “backward.” The Left in the United States today, what there is of it, would do well to take on board that text’s core principles – adapted, of course, to the circumstances we nowadays confront.
The most basic of those principles is that, for fundamental political change, leadership and direction is indispensable. To put the point in a way that sounds hopelessly anachronistic: insurgent masses need a revolutionary vanguard.
Revolts and rebellions have always been with us, and will be so long as injustice and oppression endure. But for spontaneous outbreaks of resistance to result in real change, they cannot remain spontaneous forever.
Lenin wrote as a revolutionary addressing revolutionaries, at a time when the French Revolution was still the paradigm case. The common understanding, back then, was that revolutions – fundamental transformations of social, political and economic institutions – began with the seizure of state power by insurrectionary (violent) means. Eleven decades later, one would be hard put to imagine that sort of revolution on the agenda of any liberal democracy, much less the United States.
But fundamental changes in the basic structures of societies – “regime changes,” in the literal, not the neoconservative, sense of that expression – are not out of the question, even in the United States. “A better world is possible” is not an empty slogan, notwithstanding the best efforts of the forces that shape public opinion to convey the impression that it is.
Lenin’s point was that without a revolutionary organization, shaped and informed by revolutionary theory, there can be no successful revolutionary practice. This goes for peaceful but nevertheless fundamental transformations of basic institutional arrangements, as much as for the kinds of upheavals for which “revolutionary moments” like the storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace are emblematic.
That seems right, especially in light of recent events — from the resistance early in 2011 to Republican overreach in Wisconsin and elsewhere through to the Occupy movements of last fall and winter. It seems right too in light of the trajectory of the contemporaneous Arab Spring.
The basic idea is not really peculiar to Lenin’s thinking or even to the larger traditions, Marxist and Jacobin, from which “Leninism” derives. It is a tenet of all serious efforts to think through the dynamics of fundamental change in the modern era.
Why then describe it by invoking the name of an historical figure who has fallen into disfavor throughout the world? This is particularly true in the United States, where “Lenin” is a name that Americans have long been taught to revile.
One reason is that “What Is To Be Done?,” like all classic texts in political theory, conveys timely insights, notwithstanding the fact that, like all the others, it is a creature of its time and place.
No classic of Western political thought is more tied to a world that is long gone than Machiavelli’s The Prince. Yet everyone understands that, on its authority, it is both helpful and fair to use the word “Machiavellian” to describe political figures and positions today. It is the same with “What Is To Be Done?” These and other canonical texts are historical artifacts; but that is not all that they are.
A more important reason is that how a political position is described is itself a political act. In the 1980s, as it was becoming increasingly unclear what “Marxism” is and as reactionary public intellectuals — “new philosophers” in France, neo-conservatives in the United States — did their best to bring Marxism into disrepute, and at a time when Ronald Reagan were prattling on about “evil empires” even as he wreaked murder and mayhem upon the peoples of Central America, E.P. Thompson, the great historian of the English working class, when asked if was still a Marxist, said, in effect, that in the present circumstances common decency requires that he say Yes.
That is how it is today with Lenin.
Our media identifies politics with electoral contests and, to simplify (and dumb down) even more, it color codes the contestants – Democrats are blue, Republicans red. These descriptions have become part of the vernacular of our politics.
It is unintentionally revealing that, in terms of the usual color names for political tendencies, where red and black and, on the other side, white and brown figure prominently, and where blue signifies nothing, that our leftmost major party has migrated so far to the right that the color our media use to designate it, to the extent we can impute a significance to it, hardly does the Democrats justice.
It is even more revealing that our political discourse is by now so degraded that Republicans revel in being called red. Either that’s how ignorant they are of history, including the history of their own redbaiting party, or else this is just a facet of life in what Gore Vidal aptly calls the United States of Amnesia.
Whichever is the case – and, since we are talking about people who long ago stopped making sense, both could be true – it is fitting to invoke the name and specter of the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, a true red, if only to irk them.
And what could be more salutary than challenging the prissy self-righteousness of blue voters with a dose of real politics or, more precisely, lucid political theory.
And so, in the spirit of E.P. Thompson, I would say that simple decency requires that where the designation is apt, one should use the Leninist name wherever one can. Not only is it substantively correct; better yet, it will annoy those who deserve it most.
In “What Is to Be Done?,” Lenin elaborated at length on what he took to be the ideal organizational structure and strategic posture of the vanguard party he wanted to construct. This is what “What Is To Be Done?” is mainly known for. But, again, Lenin’s thinking on these matters, for all its attention to detail, was just a variant, suitable to local conditions, of the general idea that for fundamental change to be possible there must be an organized force dedicated to making it happen.
Because the Leninist take on the idea of a political vanguard became a point of reference in intra-Marxist debates, and in debates between Marxists and anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, the Leninist variant came to be identified with the more general view. This is yet another reason for adopting the designation; it draws our ahistorical and depoliticized political discourse closer to the real history of the left.
In left circles, the term “Leninist” was sometimes prized, sometimes denigrated. Like everything else in politics, it depended on circumstances. But contestation over the name, as well as over the idea the name denoted, did lead to confusion – particularly in circumstances where activists in “spontaneist” groups (or groupuscules) claimed a Leninist identification. In the aftermath of the worldwide eruptions of 1968, this sort of confusion was rife in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the United States.
Today, of course, debates about vanguardism seem archaic. It is tempting to say that this is because the world that gave rise to that debate no longer exists. However, this would be a big mistake.
In politics, as in individual psychology, there is always the prospect of what Freud called “the return of the repressed.” That is what explains the world-shaking events of 2011. The jury is still out on what will come from those eruptions. But as Cockburn made plain, with 2012 already more than half over, it’s not looking good.
Here, in the United States, with a money infused presidential election looming, a contest between two candidates few can abide much less endorse except for lesser evil reasons — and with a host of elections for lesser offices that are, for the most part, equally unpromising — the situation is especially dire.
The general problem is that the other side – Lenin would have said the capitalist side; in 2011, that designation was effectively replaced by “the one-percent” – is organized. It has a state to do its bidding, what Marx called an “executive committee” of the entire ruling class. In these circumstances, “the ninety-nine percent” has no choice but to respond, as best it can, in kind, by doing its utmost to constitute a rival executive committee.
This is a general and abstract claim – about political structures (de facto legitimate coercive institutions) in class divided societies. Actual states in capitalist societies admit of many variations on the general theme. They can be more or less responsive to the interests of some or all of the ninety-nine percent.
What they cannot do, if Lenin and Marx and the thinkers they draw upon are right, is lead a process that transforms the basic economic, social and political structures they superintend. Capitalist states can be more or less malign, but they cannot revolutionize themselves.
These days, comparatively beneficent capitalist states, the kind that still survive in much of western and northern Europe look pretty good from over here, notwithstanding the unrelenting efforts of politicians and media pundits to denigrate them. The events of 2011 were about union bargaining rights and growing inequality. Though no longer on the offensive, European social democracy and its counterparts elsewhere do well on these counts.
We did too, of course, until the late 1970s, when a series of Democratic presidents took it upon themselves to implement the “bipartisan” attack on New Deal and Great Society institutions that it is commonly associated with the name of that unjustly celebrated reactionary, Ronald Reagan.
Jimmy Carter got it going, Reagan and his Republican acolytes (nincompoops all) believed in it, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama carried it out. One would think Republicans would be grateful. But they are too focused on winning elections to evince normal reactions.
Indeed, they are so focused on winning that it’s not even clear that they act with the best interests of their paymasters in mind. Lucky for them that the plutocrats who own them are so dense and so (short-term) greedy that they neither notice nor care!
Constitutional arrangements that assure that “we, the people” are consulted only at periodic two and four-year intervals have a role to play in the fiasco now afflicting our political culture. So too does our duopoly party system, comprised as it is of two parties equally dedicated to the interests of the one-percent. And we must not leave out the shameless way the one-percent buys political influence in contravention of democratic norms, but in accord with the law of the land as determined (“legislated”) by five right-wing Supreme Court Justices.
Even so, before our political class and their media flacks undertook to exploit anxieties generated by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, ours was a (comparatively) weak state. Individuals’ lives and behaviors were generally free from intrusive state interference and there were considerable legal and customary immunities protecting free expression and political activity. This is still for the most part the case, despite the depredations of the two scofflaw presidents we have suffered under since 9/11/2001.
But our state has always been among the very strongest on earth in insuring that the powers and privileges of the one percent (or rather the fraction of the one percent who really run the show) remain immune from serious contestation. In this respect, ours has always been an unusually non-democratic democracy.
And so while the need for a political vanguard – not necessarily, indeed not ideally, the kind Lenin proposed – is general, the need for something that would serve that purpose in our circumstances is particularly acute. We live in a liberal democracy with a liberal component that remains fairly robust. But, in recent years, the democratic component, never very strong, has receded almost to the vanishing point.
In these circumstances, the electoral road to change and hope – not just for a radically transformed social and economic order, but even just for a more decent order within the framework of existing social, political and economic arrangements — is more than usually out of reach.
This is the real lesson of the 2008 election. Obama may be feckless, and he has certainly disappointed almost everybody who harbored any hopes for his presidency. He could have done much better. But the idea that he could begin to do what some of his supporters imagined he would was illusory from the start. One needn’t be a full-fledged Leninist to know that, but serious readers of “What Is To Be Done?” could hardly fail to notice – or to understand why.
If the Occupy movements peter out entirely, as Cockburn thought they already have, it will illustrate Lenin’s general point. For a time, they breathed new life into spontaneism. Indeed, leaderlessness helped them along. But they eventually reached a point where the choice was posed: make a quantum leap into the vanguardist model they rejected or fade away. Since the former hasn’t happened and almost certainly won’t, let us hope that, as they fade into historical memory, some of the good the Occupy movements did can be turned into a useful legacy.
The failure of the resistance to the overreach of reactionary governors, like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, illustrates this point too. But, although these movements, unlike the Occupy movements that followed, were only defensive, they are even more revealing. They make plain the “American exceptionalism” that makes Lenin’s general point all the more urgent for us.
The Wisconsin case is especially instructive. In more democratic democracies than ours, a spontaneous mobilization of the kind that developed there in the spring of 2011 would have forced a political crisis that would have caused the government either to back down or to fall. Our institutions don’t allow governments to fall.
At most, they allow for officials to be recalled. In Wisconsin, for the governor and lieutenant governor that wasn’t legally possible for months after the spring uprising because, according to the state constitution, officials cannot be recalled before they have served at least a year.
And so, the spontaneous mobilization could either have escalated, which was impossible without a “revolutionary” theory and practice guiding it, or else degenerate into the usual electoral circus with a Democrat contending against the incumbent Republican governor.
Once it came to that, all the usual pathologies of our electoral system kicked in. The better to appeal to those vaunted “independents” Obama and his co-thinkers try so hard to please, Democrats went for the most anodyne of the candidates in contention. Meanwhile, Republican donors flooded Walker with money, while national Democrats (Obama most conspicuously) couldn’t even be bothered to show up. Therefore, Walker won. People power might have unseated him despite everything but, by the time it counted, the impulse had already become too degraded by the normal operations of our political institutions to save the day.
There was arguably an alternative that was mooted at the time – to reject a “political” (electoral) solution and to call instead for a general strike. That was too scary a prospect however; nobody knew what would come of it.
Had it been attempted, it would certainly have divided the insurgent forces because Democrats would have done their level best to quash the effort. Democratic legislators in Madison were worlds better than the bought and paid for ones in Obama’s Washington. They cared about public workers. Democratic state Senators even went so far as to leave the state to deny Senate Republicans a quorum, stalling Walker’s assault on union rights. But the first concern of all Democrats, even the good ones, is to sustain the powers that be. For them to support a general strike would have therefore been unthinkable.
The Wisconsin case shows plainly how disabling electoral politics in the United States has become. If there is any life left in the Occupy movements, watch it too become swept up and dissipated as the 2012 election season heats up.
For those who would take the message of “What Is To Be Done?” to heart, the remedy is clear: we need to construct a leadership that is capable of making change happen when the time again arises, as it surely will.
The problem now, as always, is how to get from here to there. That was the problem Lenin addressed for his time and place. In Russia in 1903, he had to contend with a far more repressive state than we do in 2012.
But with all the means the one percent now has at its disposal for shaping opinion and stifling dissent, the obstacles we face are at least as daunting. The way forward will not be easy. But we won’t get anywhere unless we try.
The Occupy movements showed that real change is possible, that the human material necessary for making it happen is there. They showed that “we, the people,” enough of us anyway, are prepared to wake up and fight back.
When this happens again, as it surely will, we must be prepared. This is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from “What Is To Be Done?”
Applying Lenin’s prescriptions mechanically in circumstances very different from the ones he confronted never made sense, though segments of the left went on for decades as if it did. What they ought to have done, and what we can still do, is appropriate the core principles of “What Is To Be Done?” to the conditions that actually obtain.
Then the next time resistance to ruling class aggression or to the outrageous inequalities generated by present day capitalism erupts, there will at least be a chance that enduring and beneficial change will come from it – not the meretricious kind some deluded voters imagined they’d get from Obama, and not the fleeting and largely illusory kind that the Occupy movements produced in their moments of glory, but the real deal.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).