Lenin's lesson

Clara Figueiredo, Izmailovsky Market, Lenin_ 2067,60 rubles, Moscow, 2016
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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

To resist the effects of war exhaustion, Ukrainians must put themselves in the shoes of Vladimir Lenin's climber

If there is one element of Vladimir Lenin's political legacy that is worth praising a century after his death, it is his insight into what it takes to remain truly faithful to the cause. Whether in Israel or Ukraine today, the only political path forward is one that avoids blind dogmatism and cynical opportunism.

A century has passed since the death of Vladimir Lenin; It has been more than three decades since his Bolshevik project collapsed. But although much of his political life was highly problematic from today's perspective, his unapologetic pragmatism, as one might call it, still has validity.

Recall Vladimir Lenin’s well-known commitment to “concrete analysis of the concrete situation”. Both dogmatic loyalty to the cause and unprincipled opportunism must be avoided. Under rapidly changing real-world conditions, the only way to truly remain true to a principle – to remain “orthodox” in the positive sense of the term – is to change one's position in the face of changing reality. Thus, in 1922, having won the civil war against all odds, the Bolsheviks embraced the “New Economic Policy”, giving a much wider space to private property and the market.

When explaining this decision, Vladimir Lenin used the analogy of a climber who needs to retreat “in order to jump further”. After enumerating the achievements and failures of the new Soviet state, he concluded: “Communists who have no illusions do not give in to discouragement; they preserve their strength and flexibility 'to begin with'; repeat an attempt to perform an extremely difficult task; they are not condemned (and in all probability will not perish).”

One hears echoes of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian from whom Marxists can learn a lot. Any revolutionary process, Vladimir Lenin believed, is not gradual, but repetitive, a movement of repeating the beginning several times, successively.

What is the best way to understand the situation we are in today? After the “obscure disaster” of 1989, which put a definitive end to the era that began with the October Revolution of 1917, we can no longer expect any continuity of what “the left” meant in the last two centuries. Although indelible moments like the Jacobin climax of the French Revolution and the October Revolution remain in our memory, the influxes of these movements are over. Everything must be rethought from a new starting point.

A new approach is more important than ever before as global capitalism has become the only true revolutionary force. What remains of the left is the obsessive effort to protect the old achievements of the welfare state, a project that largely ignores how much capitalism has changed the texture of relationships in our societies in recent decades.

There are exceptions, of course. Among the rare theorists and politicians who have recognized this process for what it is is Yanis Varoufakis. Capitalism, he argues, is transforming into techno-feudalism and this is why traditional anti-capitalist rhetoric continues to lose steam. The implication is that we must abandon social democracy and its central idea of ​​a welfare state, that is, left liberalism.

In a properly Leninist way, Yanis Varoufakis sees that the object of our critical analysis (capitalism) has changed and, therefore, we must change with it. Otherwise, we will only be helping capitalism to revitalize itself in a new way.

Lenin's form of pragmatism is not only available to the left. Last month, Ami Ayalon, former leader of Shin Bet (Israel's internal security service), called for a paradigm shift: “We, Israelis, will only have security when they, Palestinians, have hope again. That’s the equation we need to solve.” As Israel will not be safe until the Palestinians have their own state, Israeli authorities must release Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned leader of the Second Intifada, to lead negotiations to create it.

“Look at the Palestinian polls” – says Ami Ayalon. “He is the only leader who can lead the Palestinians to build a state alongside the State of Israel. Firstly, because he believes in the concept of two states and, secondly, because he gained his legitimacy even while operating within our prisons.” In fact, many see Marwan Barghouti (imprisoned for more than two decades) as a kind of Palestinian Nelson Mandela.

Or consider an even more surprising example. Last week, the head of the Ukrainian army, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, following media reports that he may soon be dismissed from his post, published a commentary outlining his priorities for Ukraine. He identified the highest stakes for the war effort: “the challenge for our Armed Forces cannot be underestimated” – he wrote. “It is necessary to create a completely new state system of technological rearmament.”

What this means is a duplication of “unmanned systems – like drones – along with other types of advanced weapons, which provide the best way for Ukraine to avoid being drawn into a positional war where we do not possess the advantage.” The “iron general,” as he is sometimes called, then recognized that, with key allies dealing with their own political tensions, Ukraine must prepare for a reduction in military support.

I see Valeriy Zaluzhnyi's brief commentary as a Leninist (i.e. pragmatic, about dealing with principles) intervention in adverse circumstances. True, radical leftists and Zaluzhnyi himself will find this characterization absurd. And I am not an expert on the power struggles currently taking place in Ukraine, nor do I know about the role Valeriy Zaluzhnyi may have in them. All I am saying is that Valeriy Zaluzhnyi skillfully combined fidelity to the objective (maintaining Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity as a democratic state) with concrete analysis of the situation on the battlefield.

Frankly speaking, we are past the heroic phase of popular resistance to the invader and close personal combat on the front line. Ukraine must reorient itself, adopting new technologies appropriate to a protracted war and getting ahead of Western countries' growing reluctance to provide aid indefinitely. Ukraine will also need to get its own house in order by acting more decisively against corruption and oligarchs and clearly articulating what it is fighting for.

Above all, Ukraine needs a shared vision that is not strictly nationalist or defined – and this is critical – by the suspicion that the Ukrainian left is pro-Russian. To resist the effects of war exhaustion, Ukrainians must put themselves in the shoes of Vladimir Lenin's climber.

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo). [https://amzn.to/46TCc6V]

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado

Originally published on the portal Project syndicate.


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