October marks the centennial of the Russian Revolution, the event that opened the disastrous experiment of Marxism-in-power. The Revolution should be remembered for the then-unprecedented misery and death it unleashed, and for the Luciferian ruthlessness of its principal architect, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the first of the 20th-century totalitarian adventurers.
The Slovenian social thinker and intellectual celebrity Slavoj Zizek has a different take. The Revolution, he believes, however destructive it became, carried an enormous “emancipatory potential.” The task in 2017, he says, is to recover that promise through a “radical rethinking of Communism, reactualizing it for today.” And far from being obsolete, Lenin — especially in his final years, as he struggled to consolidate Bolshevik power in a post-October Russia reeling from civil war and foreign embargo — offers a model for proceeding. Lenin 2017 brings together a representative sample of Lenin’s turgid and hate-ridden late writings with a long interpretive essay by Zizek, whose argument is at once preposterous and chilling.
Lenin held the “bourgeois” freedoms in contempt. Freedom of speech, for instance, was a fraudulent concept, a weapon of counter-revolutionaries. As Lenin put it in 1922 to those fellow revolutionaries disturbed by his increasingly authoritarian methods, “Either you refrain from expressing your views or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances” — when the Bolsheviks were fighting to wipe out the “white guards” faithful to the old regime — “then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white-guard elements.” The freedom to criticize the Bolshevik government amounted to the freedom to defeat the workers and the peasants, Lenin contended, and therefore had to be crushed.
Zizek seems to enjoy speaking and writing freely: He jets from one academic conference to another, has no problem finding publishers, and regularly appears on the op-ed pages of such elite press outlets as the Guardian and the New York Times. But he nevertheless maintains that Lenin’s position is worth considering seriously. The way free speech works in liberal democracies, Zizek says, is to trick us into believing that we’re not slaves of illegitimate capitalist power; liberal societies are in “some sense” worse than totalitarian ones when it comes to political conformity, because thinking of ourselves as free cuts off revolutionary possibilities. When Lenin insists “that we should always ask apropos of any freedom, whom does it serve, what is its role in the class struggle,” writes Zizek, “his point is precisely to maintain the possibility of a true radical choice.” The Revolution is what really matters. While not demanding the execution of conservatives and other opponents, Zizek appears open to silencing them.
Formal democracy has no deeper legitimacy than does free speech, as Robespierre (another Zizekian hero) recognized, well before Lenin. The “sovereign will” of the people expressed itself through the French Revolution, claimed Robespierre. If subsequent votes — even lots of votes — betrayed that will, they had to be suppressed. There was a higher egalitarian truth than democracy, and Robespierre’s Jacobins launched the infamous Terror, imprisoning and beheading political opponents who refused to acknowledge it. This was another bloodletting with an “emancipatory kernel,” Zizek informs us. At a revolutionary moment, he writes, “there are no innocent bystanders, because, in such a moment, innocence itself — exempting oneself from the decision, going on as if the struggle one is witnessing is not really one’s concern — is indeed the highest treason.”
Still, we shouldn’t despise democratic elections. Sometimes, explains Zizek, “the majority momentarily ‘awakens’ and votes against the hegemonic ideological opinion.” But this is rare enough that we should never fetishize representative institutions. Zizek instead endorses historian Sophie Wahnich’s call for a “demanding and sometimes even lethal ethics of truth.” With a planet facing grave ecological crisis and a growing divide between rich and poor, riots and subversion will often be better options in fighting for that truth than the voting booth.
Lenin offers other crucial lessons for today, Zizek says. With citizens of ostensibly free liberal societies lulled into false complacency, “intense cultural education” in revolutionary doctrine is needed, just as Lenin demanded for the backward Russian masses shortly before he died. In Russia, the Party elite would lead this effort. Nowadays, presumably, schools could spread the word. But also helpful in that process, he continues, would be a new Master: “When we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or rather what we already wanted without knowing it).” The Master — the leader of the Leninist vanguard — will teach the masses to “break out of the passivity of representative politics and engage as direct political agents.” (Zizek mentions Hugo Chávez as one recent such leader.)
Should belief in the Communist vision dim, Zizek recommends reading Lenin’s 1922 essay “On Ascending a High Mountain,” included in this volume, as a salve. There, in one of his livelier texts, Lenin likens the revolutionary process to a difficult mountain climb, where immovable obstacles are encountered and slow, often treacherous returns down the slope, perhaps back to the starting point, will be necessary, if only to prepare new paths for ascent. “This is exactly where we are today,” Zizek tells us, after the “disaster” of 1989. Maybe the next climb will finally reach the top. As for those, such as the Maoist French philosopher Alain Badiou, who fear any militant takeover of the state because of past revolutionary atrocities, Zizek says: Toughen up. Even if state-led terror burns the world again, the struggle for emancipation will someday be worth it.
Does Zizek really believe any of this? Does he really think we should dismiss the importance of free speech and representative democracy, look to new Great Leaders to save us, and thrill to political violence and fanaticism? As the great historian Robert Conquest documented, Lenin’s Bolshevik regime was far more oppressive than the czarist government it overthrew. Conquest put the maximum number of deaths from executions, in pogroms, and in prison under the czarist regime from 1866 to 1917 at 25,000. Over the first half century of Bolshevik rule, by contrast, the executions were at least 50 times as numerous and the maximum number of prisoners 70 times greater. There was, in other words, no “emancipatory potential” in Lenin’s revolution. Yet neither in Lenin 2017 nor in his many other works does Zizek detail exactly what a “reactualized” Communism would look like and how it would avoid the horrors and failures of the past. Given Zizek’s apologetics for the Leninist record, one wonders how much he even cares. His writing — filled with not only close readings of the Marxian canon but also abstruse psychoanalytic concepts and clever takes on popular films — at times comes off like an elaborate postmodern gag. One of his books is called “Zizek’s Jokes: Did You Hear the One about Hegel and Negation?”
Yet take a look at American university campuses, with their angry-baby students shouting down speakers they’ve never heard or read and radical faculties promulgating theories about speech as violence and democracy as a sham. Consider polls of Millennials showing rising sympathy for socialism and lukewarm devotion to free speech. Walk through a riot-torn American inner city, where the ignorant media celebrate marauders as social-justice warriors. Think about the Left’s public fantasies of killing President Donald Trump and the thuggery of Antifa and other protest groups. One of liberal democracy’s enormous achievements has been the pacification of political violence — no easy thing, and always partial, as much of human experience reminds us. The troubling developments of our recent history suggest that Zizek’s dark theory may capture a perilous moment, and that Lenin’s return from the grave may be nothing to laugh at.
– Mr. Anderson is the editor of City Journal and the author of Democratic Capitalism and Its Discontents.