Lenin: Remembering and Repeating

Wassily Kandinsky, 1923 - Composition 8, huile sur toile, 140 cm x 201 cm, Musée Guggenheim, New York.

Today marks the Centenary year of the October Revolution when the Bolsheviks, led by leftist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the provisional Russian government. Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through by Slavoj Žižek is a new study and collection of Lenin's original texts, taken from the last two years of his political life. Žižek argues that Lenin's ultimate courage and originality as a leader was through his determination to face the harsh reality of the aftermath of the revolution head on. Drawing parallels between contemporary capitalism and post-revolutionary Russia, Žižek makes a case for why Lenin's thought is still important today. Here we share an extract from the book's introduction. For more on the Russian Revolution, please see our reading list.

The title of Freud’s short text from 1914, ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working Through’, provides the best formula for the way we should relate – today, 100 years later – to the event called the October Revolution. The three concepts Freud mentions form a dialectical triad: they designate the three phases of the analytical process, and resistance intervenes in every passage from one phase to the next. The first step consists in remembering the repressed past traumatic events, in bringing them out, which can also be done by hypnosis. This phase immediately runs into a deadlock: the content brought out lacks its proper symbolic context and thus remains ineffective; it fails to transform the subject and resistance remains active, limiting the amount of content revealed. The problem with this approach is that it stays focused on the past and ignores the subject’s present constellation which keeps this past alive, symbolically active. Resistance expresses itself in the form of transference: what the subject cannot properly remember, she repeats, transferring the past constellation onto a present (e.g., she treats the analyst as if he were her father). What the subject cannot properly remember, she acts out, re- enacts – and when the analyst points this out, her intervention is met with resistance. Working through is working through the resistance, turning it from the obstacle into the very resort of analysis, and this turn is self-reflexive in a properly Hegelian sense: resistance is a link between object and subject, between past and present, proof that we are not only fixated on the past but that this fixation is an effect of the present deadlock in the subject’s libidinal economy.

With regard to 1917, we also begin by remembering, by recalling, the true history of the October Revolution and, of course, its reversal into Stalinism. The great ethico-political problem of the communist regimes can best be captured under the title ‘founding fathers, founding crimes’. Can a communist regime survive the act of openly confronting its violent past in which millions were imprisoned and killed? If so, in what form and to what degree? The first paradigmatic case of such a confrontation was, of course, Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘secret’ report on Stalin’s crimes to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956. The first thing that strikes one in this report is the focus on Stalin’s personality as being the key factor in the crimes, and the concomitant lack of any systematic analysis of what made those crimes possible. The second feature is its strenuous effort to keep the Origins clear: not only is the condemnation of Stalin limited to his arrest and killing of high-ranking Party members and military officers in the 1930s (where rehabilitations were very selective: Bukharin, Zinoviev, etc., continued to be non-persons, not to mention Trotsky), ignoring the great famine of the late 1920s; but the report is also presented as announcing the return of the Party to its ‘Leninist roots’, so that Lenin emerges as the pure Origin spoiled or betrayed by Stalin. In his belated but perspicuous analysis of the report, written in 1970, Sartre noted that

it was true that Stalin had ordered massacres, transformed the land of the revolution into a police state; he was truly convinced that the USSR would not reach communism without passing through the socialism of concentration camps. But as one of the witnesses very rightly points out, when the authorities find it useful to tell the truth, it’s because they can’t find any better lie. Immediately this truth, coming from official mouths, becomes a lie corroborated by the facts. Stalin was a wicked man? Fine. But how had Soviet society perched him on the throne and kept him there for a quarter of a century.

Indeed, is not Khrushchev’s later fate (he was deposed in 1964) proof of Oscar Wilde’s quip that if one tells the truth, one will sooner or later be caught out? Sartre’s analysis nonetheless falls short on one crucial point: even if Khrushchev was ‘speaking in the name of the system’ – ‘the machine was sound, but its chief operator was not; this saboteur had relieved the world of his presence, and everything was going to run smoothly again’ – his report did have a traumatic impact, and his intervention set in motion a process that ultimately brought down the system itself – a lesson worth remembering today. In this precise sense, Khrushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes was a true political act – after which, as William Taubman put it, ‘the Soviet regime never fully recovered, and neither did he’. Although the opportunist motives for this daring move are plain enough, there was clearly more than mere calculation to it, a kind of reckless excess which cannot be accounted for by strategic reasoning. After the speech, things were never the same again, the fundamental dogma of infallible leadership had been fatally undermined; no wonder then, that, in reaction to the speech, the entire nomenklatura sank into temporary paralysis. During the speech itself, a dozen or so delegates suffered nervous breakdowns and had to be carried out and given medical help; a few days later, Boleslaw Bierut, the hard-line general secretary of the Polish Communist Party, died of a heart attack, and the model Stalinist writer Alexander Fadeyev shot himself. The point is not that they were ‘honest communists’ – most of them were brutal manipulators who harboured no subjective illusions about the nature of the Soviet regime. What broke down was their ‘objective’ illusion: the figure of the ‘big Other’ that had provided the background against which they were able to pursue their ruthless drive for power. The Other onto which they had transposed their belief, which as it were believed on their behalf, their subject-supposed-to-believe, disintegrated.

Khrushchev’s wager was that his (limited) confession would strengthen the communist movement – and in the short term he was right. One should always remember that the Khrushchev era was the last period of authentic communist enthusiasm, of belief in the communist project. When, during his visit to the United States in 1959, Khrushchev made his famous de ant statement to the American public that ‘your grandchildren will be communists’, he effectively spelled out the conviction of the entire Soviet nomenklatura. After his fall in 1964, a resigned cynicism prevailed, up until Gorbachev’s attempt at a more radical confrontation with the past (the rehabilitations then included Bukharin, but – for Gorbachev at least – Lenin remained the untouchable point of reference, and Trotsky continued to be a non-person).

With Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reforms’, the Chinese proceeded in a radically different, almost opposite, way. While at the level of the economy (and, up to a point, culture) what is usually understood as ‘communism’ was abandoned, and the gates were opened wide to Western-style ‘liberalisation’ (private property, profit-making, hedonist individualism, etc.), the Party nevertheless maintained its ideologico-political hegemony – not in the sense of doctrinal orthodoxy (in the official discourse, the Confucian reference to the ‘Harmonious Society’ practically replaced any reference to communism), but in the sense of maintaining the unconditional political hegemony of the Communist Party as the only guarantee of China’s stability and prosperity. This required a close monitoring and regulation of the ideological discourse on Chinese history, especially the history of the last two centuries: the story endlessly varied by the state media and textbooks is one of China’s humiliation from the Opium Wars onwards, which ended only with the communist victory in 1949, leading to the conclusion that to be patriotic is to support the rule of the Party. When history is given such a legitimising role, of course, it cannot tolerate any substantial self-critique; the Chinese had learned the lesson of Gorbachev’s failure: full recognition of the ‘founding crimes’ will only bring the entire system down. Those crimes thus have to remain disavowed: true, some Maoist ‘excesses’ and ‘errors’ are denounced (the Great Leap Forward and the devastating famine that followed; the Cultural Revolution), and Deng’s assessment of Mao’s role (70 per cent positive, 30 per cent negative) is enshrined as the official formula. But this assessment functions as a formal conclusion which renders any further elaboration superfluous: even if Mao was 30 per cent bad, the full symbolic impact of this admission is neutralised, so he can continue to be celebrated as the founding father of the nation, his body in a mausoleum and his image on every banknote. We are dealing here with a clear case of fetishistic disavowal: although we know very well that Mao made errors and caused immense suffering, his figure is kept magically untainted by these facts. In this way, the Chinese communists can have their cake and eat it: the radical changes brought about by economic ‘liberalisation’ are combined with the continuation of the same Party rule as before.

Yang Jisheng’s massive and meticulously documented study, Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine, offers an exemplary case of remembering: the result of nearly two decades of research, it puts the number of ‘prematurely dead’ between 1958 and 1961 at 36 million. (The official stance is that the disaster was due 30 per cent to natural causes and 70 per cent to mismanagement – an exact inversion of Deng’s judgement on Mao). With the privileges afforded a senior Xinhua journalist, Yang was able to consult state archives around the country and form the most complete picture of the great famine that any researcher, foreign or local, has ever managed. He was helped by scores of collaborators within the system – demographers who had toiled quietly for years in government agencies to compile accurate figures on the loss of life; local officials who had kept ghoulish records of the events in their districts; the keepers of provincial archives who were happy to open their doors, with a nod and a wink, to a trusted comrade pretending to be researching the history of China’s grain production. The reaction? In Wuhan, a major city in central China, the office of the Committee of Comprehensive Management of Social Order put Tombstone on a list of ‘obscene, pornographic, violent and unhealthy books for children’, to be confiscated on sight. Elsewhere, the Party killed Tombstone with silence, banning any mention of it in the media but refraining from attention-grabbing attacks on the book itself. But Yang still lives in China, retired, unmolested, publishing occasionally in scientific journals. Among other important insights, Yang establishes that one reason for the famine lay in the application of bad science: the central government decreed several changes in agricultural techniques based on the ideas of the Ukrainian pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko. One of these ideas was close planting, where the density of seedlings is first tripled and then doubled again. Transposing class solidarity onto nature, the theory was that plants of the same species would not compete with but would help each other – in practice, of course, they did compete, which stunted growth and resulted in lower yields.

This is how a combination of false remembering and repetition operates with regard to the communist past, but such falsity is in no way limited to communists who refuse to settle accounts with their past and thus condemn themselves to repeat it. The standard liberal or conservative demonisation of the October Revolution also misses the emancipatory potential clearly discernible therein, reducing it to a brutal takeover of state power. The tension between these two dimensions of the Revolution does not mean that the Stalinist turn was a secondary deviation, since one can well argue that the latter was a possibility inherent in the Bolshevik project, meaning it was doomed from the very beginning. This is why the project was genuinely tragic: an authentic emancipatory vision condemned to failure by its very victory.

This is where the working through enters as the radical rethinking of communism, re-actualising it for today. And this is why only those faithful to communism can deploy a truly radical critique of the sad reality of Stalinism and its offspring. Let’s face it: today, Lenin and his legacy are perceived as hopelessly dated, belonging to a defunct ‘paradigm’. Not only was Lenin understandably blind to many of the problems that are now central to contemporary life (ecology, struggles for emancipated sexuality, etc.), but also his brutal political practice is totally out of sync with current democratic sensitivities, his vision of the new society as a centralised industrial system run by the state is simply irrelevant, etc. Instead of desperately attempting to salvage the authentic Leninist core from the Stalinist alluvium, would it not be more advisable to forget Lenin and return to Marx, searching in his work for the roots of what went wrong in the twentieth-century communist movements?

Nevertheless, was not Lenin’s situation marked precisely by a similar hopelessness? It is true that today’s left is facing the shattering experience of the end of an entire epoch of the progressive movement, an experience which compels it to rein- vent the most basic coordinates of its project. But an exactly homologous experience was what gave birth to Leninism. Recall Lenin’s shock when, in the autumn of 1914, all the European social-democratic parties (with the honourable exception of the Russian Bolsheviks and the Serbian Social Democrats) opted to toe the ‘patriotic line’. When the German Social Democrats’ daily newspaper Vorwärts reported that social democrats in the Reichstag had voted for the military credits, Lenin even thought that it must have been a forgery by the Russian secret police designed to deceive the Russian workers. In an era of a military conflict that cut the European continent in half, how difficult it was to refuse the notion that one should take sides and to reject the ‘patriotic fervour’ in one’s own country! How many great minds (including Freud) succumbed to the nationalist temptation, even if only for a couple of weeks!

The shock of 1914 was – to put it in Alain Badiou’s terms – a désastre, a catastrophe in which an entire world disappeared: not only the idyllic bourgeois faith in progress, but also the socialist movement that accompanied it. Even Lenin himself lost his footing – there is, in his desperate reaction in What Is to Be Done?, no satisfaction, no ‘I told you so!’ This moment of Verzwei ung, this catastrophe, opened up the site for the Leninist event, for breaking with the evolutionary his- toricism of the Second International – and Lenin was the only one at the level of this opening, the only one to articulate the Truth of the catastrophe. Born in this moment of despair was the Lenin who, via the detour of a close reading of Hegel’s Logic, was able to discern the unique chance for revolution.

Today, the left is in a situation that uncannily resembles the one that gave birth to Leninism, and its task is to repeat Lenin. This does not mean a return to Lenin. To repeat Lenin is to accept that ‘Lenin is dead’, that his particular solution failed, even failed monstrously. To repeat Lenin means that one has to distinguish between what Lenin actually did and the eld of possibilities that he opened up, to acknowledge the tension in Lenin between his actions and another dimension, what was ‘in Lenin more than Lenin himself’. To repeat Lenin is to repeat not what Lenin did, but what he failed to do, his missed opportunities.

The above is excerpted from Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through by Slavoj Žižek 

See all our Russian Revolition reading here.