Can Lenin Tell Us About Freedom Today

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Today, even the self-proclaimed post-Marxist radicals endorse the gap between ethics and politics, relegating politics to the domain of doxa, of pragmatic considerations and compromises which always and by definition fall short of the unconditional ethical demand. The notion of a politics which would not have been a series of mere pragmatic interventions, but the politics of Truth, is dismissed as "totalitarian." The breaking out of this deadlock, the reassertion of a politics of Truth today, should take the form of a return to Lenin. Why Lenin, why not simply Marx? Is the proper return not the return to origins proper? Today, "returning to Marx" is already a minor academic fashion. Which Marx do we get in these returns? On the one hand, the Cultural Studies Marx, the Marx of the postmodern sophists, of the Messianic promise; on the other hand, the Marx who foretold the dynamic of today's globalization and is as such evoked even on Wall Street. What these both Marxes have in common is the denial of politics proper; the reference to Lenin enables us to avoid these two pitfalls.

There are two features which distinguish his intervention. First, one cannot emphasize enough the fact of Lenin's externality with regard to Marx: he was not a member of Marx's "inner circle" of the initiated, he never met either Marx or Engels; moreover, he came from a land at the Eastern borders of "European civilization." (This externality is part of the standard Western racist argument against Lenin: he introduced into Marxism the Russian-Asiatic "despotic principle"; in one remove further, Russians themselves disown him, pointing towards his Tatar origins.) It is only possible to retrieve the theory's original impulse from this external position, in exactly the same way St Paul, who formulated the basic tenets of Christianity, was not part of Christ's inner circle, and Lacan accomplished his "return to Freud" using as a leverage a totally distinct theoretical tradition. (Freud was aware of this necessity, which is why he put his trust in Jung as a non-Jew, an outsider - to break out of the Jewish initiatic community. His choice was bad, because Jungian theory functioned in itself as initiatic Wisdom; it was Lacan who succeeded where Jung failed.) So, in the same way St Paul and Lacan reinscribe the original teaching into a different context (St Paul reinterprets Christ's crucifixion as his triumph; Lacan reads Freud through the mirror-stage Saussure), Lenin violently displaces Marx, tears his theory out of its original context, planting it in another historical moment, and thus effectively universalizes it.

Second, it is only through such a violent displacement that the "original" theory can be put to work, fulfilling its potential of political intervention. It is significant that the work in which Lenin's unique voice was for the first time clearly heard is What Is To Be Done? - the text which exhibits Lenin's unconditional will to intervene into the situation, not in the pragmatic sense of "adjusting the theory to the realistic claims through necessary compromises," but, on the contrary, in the sense of dispelling all opportunistic compromises, of adopting the unequivocal radical position from which it is only possible to intervene in such a way that our intervention changes the coordinates of the situation. The contrast is here clear with regard to today's Third Way "postpolitics," which emphasizes the need to leave behind old ideological divisions and to confront new issues, armed with the necessary expert knowledge and free deliberation that takes into account concrete people's needs and demands.

As such, Lenin's politics is the true counterpoint not only to the Third Way pragmatic opportunism, but also to the marginalist Leftist attitude of what Lacan called le narcissisme de la chose perdue. What a true Leninist and a political conservative have in common is the fact that they reject what one could call liberal Leftist "irresponsibility" (advocating grand projects of solidarity, freedom, etc., yet ducking out when one has to pay the price for it in the guise of concrete and often "cruel" political measures): like an authentic conservative, a true Leninist is now afraid to pass to the act, to assume all the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, of realizing his political project. Rudyard Kipling (whom Brecht admired) despised British liberals who advocated freedom and justice, while silently counting on the Conservatives to do the necessary dirty work for them; the same can be said for the liberal Leftist's (or "democratic Socialist's") relationship towards Leninist Communists: liberal Leftists reject the Social Democratic "compromise," they want a true revolution, yet they shirk the actual price to be paid for it and thus prefer to adopt the attitude of a Beautiful Soul and to keep their hands clean. In contrast to this false radical Leftist's position (who want true democracy for the people, but without the secret police to fight counterrevolution, without their academic privileges being threatened), a Leninist, like a Conservative, is authentic in the sense of fully assuming the consequences of his choice, i.e. of being fully aware of what it actually means to take power and to exert it.

The return to Lenin is the endeavor to retrieve the unique moment when a thought already transposes itself into a collective organization, but does not yet fix itself into an Institution (the established Church, the IPA, the Stalinist Party-State). It aims neither at nostalgically reenacting the "good old revolutionary times," nor at the opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old program to "new conditions," but at repeating, in the present world-wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of initiating a political project that would undermine the totality of the global liberal-capitalist world order, and, furthermore, a project that would unabashedly assert itself as acting on behalf of truth, as intervening in the present global situation from the standpoint of its repressed truth. What Christianity did with regard to the Roman Empire, this global "multiculturalist" polity, we should do with regard to today's Empire.[1] How, then, do things stand with freedom? In a polemic against the Menshevik's critics of the Bolshevik power in 1920, Lenin answered the claim of one of the critics - "So, gentlemen Bolsheviks, since, before the Revolution and your seizure of power, you pleaded for democracy and freedom, be so kind as to permit us now to publish a critique of your measures!" - with the acerbic: "Of course, gentlemen, you have all the freedom to publish this critique - but, then, gentlemen, be so kind as to allow us to line you up the wall and shoot you!" This Leninist freedom of choice - not "Life or money!" but "Life or critique!" -, combined with Lenin's dismissive attitude towards the "liberal" notion of freedom, accounts for his bad reputation among liberals. Their case largely rests upon their rejection of the standard Marxist-Leninist opposition of "formal" and "actual" freedom: as even Leftist liberals like Claude Lefort emphasize again and again, freedom is in its very notion "formal," so that "actual freedom" equals the lack of freedom.[2] That is to say, with regard to freedom, Lenin is best remembered for his famous retort "Freedom - yes, but for WHOM? To do WHAT?" - for him, in the above-quoted case of the Mensheviks, their "freedom" to criticize the Bolshevik government effectively amounted to "freedom" to undermine the workers' and peasants' government on behalf of the counterrevolution... Is today, after the terrifying experience of the Really Existing Socialism, not more than obvious in what the fault of this reasoning resides? First, it reduces a historical constellation to a closed, fully contextualized, situation in which the "objective" consequences of one's acts are fully determined ("independently of your intentions, what you are doing now objectively serves..."); secondly, the position of enunciation of such statements usurp the right to decide what yours acts "objectively mean," so that their apparent "objectivism" (the focus on "objective meaning") is the form of appearance of its opposite, the thorough subjectivism: I decide what your acts objectively mean, since I define the context of a situation (say, if I conceive of my power as the immediate equivalent/expression of the power of the working class, than everyone who opposes me is "objectively" an enemy of the working class). Against this full contextualization, one should emphasize that freedom is "actual" precisely and only as the capacity to "transcend" the coordinates of a given situation, to "posit the presuppositions" of one's activity (as Hegel would have put it), i.e. to redefine the very situation within which one is active. Furthermore, as many a critic pointed out, the very term "Really Existing Socialism," although it was coined in order to assert Socialism's success, is in itself a proof of Socialism's utter failure, i.e. of the failure of the attempt to legitimize Socialist regimes - the term "Really Existing Socialism" popped up at the historical moment when the only legitimizing reason for Socialism was a mere fact that it exists...

Is this, however, the whole story? How does freedom effectively function in liberal democracies themselves? Although Clinton's presidency epitomizes the Third Way of the today's (ex-)Left succumbing to the Rightist ideological blackmail, his healthcare reform program would nonetheless amount to a kind of act, at least in today's conditions, since it would have been based on the rejection of the hegemonic notions of the need to curtail Big State expenditure and administration - in a way, it would "do the impossible." No wonder, than, that it failed: its failure - perhaps the only significant, although negative, event of Clinton's presidency - bears witness to the material force of the ideological notion of "free choice." That is to say, although the large majority of the so-called "ordinary people" were not properly acquainted with the reform program, the medical lobby (twice as strong as the infamous defense lobby!) succeeded in imposing on the public the fundamental idea that, with the universal healthcare, the free choice (in matters concerning medicine) will be somehow threatened - against this purely fictional reference to "free choice", all enumeration of "hard facts" (in Canada, healthcare is less expensive and more effective, with no less free choice, etc.) proved ineffective.

We are here at the very nerve center of the liberal ideology: the freedom of choice, grounded in the notion of the "psychological" subject endowed which propensities s/he strives to realize. And this especially holds today, in the era of what sociologists like Ulrich Beck call "risk society,"[3] when the ruling ideology endeavors to sell us the very insecurity caused by the dismantling of the Welfare State as the opportunity for new freedoms: you have to change job every year, relying on short-term contracts instead of a long-term stable appointment? Why not see it as the liberation from the constraints of a fixed job, as the chance to reinvent yourself again and again, to become aware of and realize hidden potentials of your personality? You can no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay? Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or "second modernity" ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of the "escape from freedom," of the immature sticking to old stable forms... Even better, when this is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, then I as if were automatically interpret all these changes as the results of my personality, not as the result of me being thrown around by the market forces.

Phenomena like these make it all the more necessary today to REASSERT the opposition of "formal" and "actual" freedom in a new, more precise, sense. What we need today, in the era of the liberal hegemony, is a "Leninist" traite de la servitude liberale, a new version of la Boetie's Traite de la servitude volontaire that would fully justify the apparent oxymoron "liberal totalitarianism." In experimental psychology, Jean-Leon Beauvois did the first step in this direction, with his precise exploration of the paradoxes of conferring on the subject the freedom to choose.[4] Repeated experiments established the following paradox: if, AFTER getting from two groups of volunteers the agreement to participate in an experiment, one informs them that the experiment will involve something unpleasant, against their ethics even, and if, at this point, one reminds the first group that they have the free choice to say no, and one says to the other group nothing, in BOTH groups, the SAME (very high) percentage will agree to continue their participation in the experiment. What this means is that conferring the formal freedom of choice does not make any difference: those given the freedom will do the same thing as those (implicitly) denied it. This, however, does not mean that the reminder/bestowal of the freedom of choice does not make any difference: those given the freedom to choice will not only tend to choose the same as those denied it; on the top of it, they will tend to "rationalize" their "free" decision to continue to participate in the experiment - unable to endure the so-called cognitive dissonance (their awareness that they FREELY acted against their interests, propensities, tastes or norms), they will tend to change their opinion about the act they were asked to accomplish. Let us say that an individual is first asked to participate in an experiment that concerns changing the eating habits in order to fight against famine; then, after agreeing to do it, at the first encounter in the laboratory, he will be asked to swallow a living worm, with the explicit reminder that, if he finds this act repulsive, he can, of course, say no, since he has the full freedom to choose. In most cases, he will do it, and then rationalize it by way of saying to himself something like: "What I am asked to do IS disgusting, but I am not a coward, I should display some courage and self-control, otherwise scientists will perceive me as a weak person who pulls out at the first minor obstacle! Furthermore, a worm does have a lot of proteins and it could effectively be used to feed the poor - who am I to hinder such an important experiment because of my petty sensitivity? And, finally, maybe my disgust of worms is just a prejudice, maybe a worm is not so bad - and would tasting it not be a new and daring experience? What if it will enable me to discover an unexpected, slightly perverse, dimension of myself that I was hitherto unaware of?"

Beauvois enumerates three modes of what brings people to accomplish such an act which runs against their perceived propensities and/or interests: authoritarian (the pure command "You should do it because I say so, without questioning it!", sustained by the reward if the subject does it and the punishment if he does not do it), totalitarian (the reference to some higher Cause or common Good which is larger than the subject's perceived interest: "You should do it because, even if it is unpleasant, it serves our Nation, Party, Humanity!"), and liberal (the reference to the subject's inner nature itself: "What is asked of you may appear repulsive, but look deep into yourself and you will discover that it's in your true nature to do it, you will find it attractive, you will become aware of new, unexpected, dimensions of your personality!"). At this point, Beauvois should be corrected: a direct authoritarianism is practically inexistent - even the most oppressive regime publicly legitimizes its reign with the reference to some Higher Good, and the fact that, ultimately, "you have to obey because I say so" reverberates only as its obscene supplement discernible between the lines. It is rather the specificity of the standard authoritarianism to refer to some higher Good ("whatever your inclinations are, you have to follow my order for the sake of the higher Good!"), while totalitarianism, like liberalism, interpellates the subject on behalf of HIS OWN good ("what may appear to you as an external pressure, is really the expression of your objective interests, of what you REALLY WANT without being aware of it!"). The difference between the two resides elsewhere: "totalitarianism" imposes on the subject his/her own good, even if it is against his/her will - recall King Charles' (in)famous statement: "If any shall be so foolishly unnatural as to oppose their king, their country and their own good, we will make them happy, by God's blessing - even against their wills."(Charles I to the Earl of Essex, 6 August 1644) Here we already encounter have the later Jacobin theme of happiness as a political factor, as well as the Saint-Justian idea of forcing people to be happy... Liberalism tries to avoid (or, rather, cover up) this paradox by way of clinging to the end to the fiction of the subject's immediate free self-perception ("I don't claim to know better than you what you want - just look deep into yourself and decide freely what you want!").

The reason for this fault in Beauvois's line of argumentation is that he fails to recognize how the abyssal tautological authority ("It is so because I say so!" of the Master) does not work only because of the sanctions (punishment/reward) it implicitly or explicitly evokes. That is to say, what, effectively, makes a subject freely choose what is imposed on him against his interests and/or propensities? Here, the empirical inquiry into "pathological" (in the Kantian sense of the term) motivations is not sufficient: the enunciation of an injunction that imposes on its addressee a symbolic engagement/commitment evinces an inherent force of its own, so that what seduces us into obeying it is the very feature that may appear to be an obstacle - the absence of a "why." Here, Lacan can be of some help: the Lacanian "Master-Signifier" designates precisely this hypnotic force of the symbolic injunction which relies only on its own act of enunciation - it is here that we encounter "symbolic efficiency" at its purest. The three ways of legitimizing the exercise of authority ("authoritarian," "totalitarian," "liberal") are nothing but the three ways to cover up, to blind us for the seductive power of, the abyss of this empty call. In a way, liberalism is here even the worst of the three, since it NATURALIZES the reasons for obedience into the subject's internal psychological structure. So the paradox is that "liberal" subjects are in a way those least free: they change the very opinion/perception of themselves, accepting what was IMPOSED on them as originating in their "nature" - they are even no longer AWARE of their subordination.

Let us take the situation in the Eastern European countries around 1990, when the Really Existing Socialism was falling apart: all of a sudden, people were thrown into a situation of the "freedom of political choice" - however, were they REALLY at any point asked the fundamental question of what kind of knew order they actually wanted? Is it not that they found themselves in the exact situation of the subject-victim of a Beauvois experiment? They were first told that they are entering the promised land of political freedom; then, soon afterwards, they were informed that this freedom involves wild privatization, the dismantling of the social security, etc.etc. - they still have the freedom to choose, so if they want, they can step out; but, no, our heroic Eastern Europeans didn't want to disappoint their Western tutors, they stoically persisted in the choice they never made, convincing themselves that they should behave as mature subjects who are aware that freedom has its price... This is why the notion of the psychological subject endowed with natural propensities, who has to realize its true Self and its potentials, and who is, consequently, ultimately responsible for his failure or success, is the key ingredient of the liberal freedom. And here one should risk to reintroduce the Leninist opposition of "formal" and "actual" freedom: in an act of actual freedom, one dares precisely to BREAK this seductive power of the symbolic efficiency. Therein resides the moment of truth of Lenin's acerbic retort to his Menshevik critics: the truly free choice is a choice in which I do not merely choose between two or more options WITHIN a pre-given set of coordinates, but I choose to change this set of coordinates itself. The catch of the "transition" from the Really Existing Socialism to capitalism was that people never had the chance to choose the ad quem of this transition - all of a sudden, they were (almost literally) "thrown" into a new situation in which they were presented with a new set of given choices (pure liberalism, nationalist conservatism...). What this means is that the "actual freedom" as the act of consciously changing this set occurs only when, in the situation of a forced choice, one ACTS AS IF THE CHOICE IS NOT FORCED and "chooses the impossible."

Did something homologous to the invention of the liberal psychological individual not take place in the Soviet Union in the late 20s and early 30s? The Russian avant-garde art of the early 20s (futurism, constructivism) not only zealously endorsed industrialization, it even endeavored to reinvent a new industrial man - no longer the old man of sentimental passions and roots in traditions, but the new man who gladly accepts his role as a bolt or screw in the gigantic coordinated industrial Machine. As such, it was subversive in its very "ultra-orthodoxy," i.e. in its over-identification with the core of the official ideology: the image of man that we get in Eisenstein, Meyerhold, constructivist paintings, etc., emphasizes the beauty of his/her mechanical movements, his/her thorough depsychologization. What was perceived in the West as the ultimate nightmare of liberal individualism, as the ideological counterpoint to the "Taylorization," to the Fordist ribbon-work, was in Russia hailed as the utopian prospect of liberation: recall how Meyerhold violently asserted the "behaviorist" approach to acting - no longer emphatic familiarization with the person the actor is playing, but the ruthless bodily training aimed at the cold bodily discipline, at the ability of the actor to perform the series of mechanized movements...[5] THIS is what was unbearable to AND IN the official Stalinist ideology, so that the Stalinist "socialist realism" effectively WAS an attempt to reassert a "Socialism with a human face," i.e. to reinscribe the process of industrialization into the constraints of the traditional psychological individual: in the Socialist Realist texts, paintings and films, individuals are no longer rendered as parts of the global Machine, but as warm passionate persons.

The obvious reproach that imposes itself here is, of course: is the basic characteristic of today's "postmodern" subject not the exact opposite of the free subject who experienced himself as ultimately responsible for his fate, namely the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status of a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Every contact with another human being is experienced as a potential threat - if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me); this logic of victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard cases of sexual or racist harassment - recall the growing financial industry of paying damage claims, from the tobacco industry deal in the USA and the financial claims of the holocaust victims and forced laborers in the Nazi Germany, up to the idea that the USA should pay the African-Americans hundreds of billions of dollars for all they were deprived of due to their past slavery... This notion of the subject as an irresponsible victim involves the extreme Narcissistic perspective from which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject's precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite, but, rather, the inherent supplement of the liberal free subject: in today's predominant form of individuality, the self-centered assertion of the psychological subject paradoxically overlaps with the perception of oneself as a victim of circumstances.

The case of Muslims as an ethnic, not merely religious, group in Bosnia is exemplary here: during the entire history of Yugoslavia, Bosnia was the place of potential tension and dispute, the locale in which the struggle between Serbs and Croats for the dominant role was fought. The problem was that the largest group in Bosnia were neither the Orthodox Serbs nor the Catholic Croats, but Muslims whose ethnic origins were always disputed - are they Serbs or Croats. (This role of Bosnia even left a trace in idiom: in all ex-Yugoslav nations, the expression "So Bosnia is quiet!" was used in order to signal that any threat of a conflict was successfully defused.) In order to forestall this focus of potential (and actual) conflicts, the ruling Communist imposed in the 60s a miraculously simple invention: they proclaimed Muslims an autochthonous ETHNIC community, not just a religious group, so that Muslims were able to avoid the pressure to identify themselves either as Serbs or as Croats. What was so in the beginning a pragmatic political artifice, gradually caught on, Muslims effectively started to perceive themselves as a nation, systematically manufacturing their tradition, etc. However, even today, there remains an element of a reflected choice in their identity: during the post-Yugoslav war in Bosnia, one was ultimately forced to CHOOSE his/her ethnic identity - when a militia stopped a person, asking him/her threateningly "Are you a Serb or a Muslim?", the question did not refer to the inherited ethnic belonging, i.e. there was always in it an echo of "Which side did you choose?" (say, the movie director Emir Kusturica, coming from an ethnically mixed Muslim-Serb family, has chosen the Serb identity). Perhaps, the properly FRUSTRATING dimension of this choice is best rendered by the situation of having to choose a product in on-line shopping, where one has to make the almost endless series of choices: if you want it with X, press A, if not, press B... The paradox is that what is thoroughly excluded in these post-traditional "reflexive societies," in which we are all the time bombarded with the urge to choose, in which even such "natural" features as sexual orientation and ethnic identification are experienced as a matter of choice, is the basic, authentic, choice itself.


  1. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2000.
  2. See Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press 1988.
  3. See Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage 1992.
  4. See Jean-Leon Beauvois, Traite de la servitude liberale. Analyse de la soumission, Paris: Dunod 1994.
  5. See Chapters 2 and 3 of Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe, Cambridge (Ma): MIT Press 2000.