Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder

My library’s copy.

I knew of Lenin‘s pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, long before I finally, a few weeks ago, chose to read it, largely because it has the single most fantastic title of any Marxist literature of which I’m aware. In that regard, it’s the equivalent of Mingus’ “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.”

I’ve read a moderate amount of Lenin, but by no means a ton. I haven’t even read What Is To Be Done?, for example. That said, I know enough about the Russian experience to know that, despite efforts on the right and center-left, Lenin was no Stalin, and to treat him as such does a great disservice to anyone who wants to work to make the world a better–nobody is saying “perfect,” people–place for people. You can disagree with Lenin while learning from him. There have been few people in the last few centuries who have put more thought and effort into the problems our species faces.

Why this particular pamphlet, and why now? Obama raised the issue, and particularly an ongoing discussion at Smartypants’ blog about the fissures on the left over his presidency. I am certain that when I say my politics are Marxist, lots of people on the left would dismiss me as a poseur. I’m certainly not living the revolutionary dream, going underground, organizing cells, nor partaking of any of the side benefits, like being dashing and having a series of torrid, brief affairs. I do, however, find that Marx’s readings of capitalism particularly and historical change generally hold more water than anyone else’s I’ve encountered. With this in mind, I make a point of declaring myself “Marxist” when I participate in discussions. I think we would all be better off if a Marxian read on things was part of the larger conversation.

In any event, Smartypants’ general take, as she puts it, is as “pragmatic progressive.” I would join that club. This is in contrast to a huge swath of the left that, from my vantage point, is so accustomed, during my lifetime, to not exercising influence or, better still, wielding power, that it retreats into intellectual discussions among itself, with all kinds of notions of purity, etc. Most often, the practical implications of this for most people ends up with declarations like “both parties are the same, so don’t justify them with your vote.” Neither Ms. Pants nor I think that both parties are the same, and this discussion reminded me of Lenin’s famous title.

So, Lenin, writing in 1920, at the peak of his powers both politically and intellectually–you could argue that his political high-water point was with NEP, maybe–takes young, enthusiastic Communists to task for their left deviationism. Substantively, he critiqued various Dutch, German, French, and English Communists (Sylvia Pankhurst was a target) for refusing to use legal, electoral means, in coalition with other parties, as a tool in the larger struggle, viz.:

Parliamentarianism has become “historically obsolete”. That is true in the propaganda sense. However, everybody knows that this is still a far cry from overcoming it in practice. Capitalism could have been declared—and with full justice—to be “historically obsolete” many decades ago, but that does not at all remove the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism. Parliamentarianism is “historically obsolete” from the standpoint of world history, i.e., the era of bourgeois parliamentarianism is over, and the era of the proletarian dictatorship has begun. That is incontestable. But world history is counted in decades. Ten or twenty years earlier or later makes no difference when measured with the yardstick of world history; from the standpoint of world history it is a trifle that cannot be considered even approximately. But for that very reason, it is a glaring theoretical error to apply the yardstick of world history to practical politics.

The money quote, to repeat it: “is a glaring theoretical error to apply the yardstick of world history to practical politics.” I suppose I went to Lenin because you can’t find a radical leftist with better radical leftist credentials. You can argue with Leninist vanguardism, but you can’t argue, as people do about Obama, that Lenin is a bourgeois toadie. When Obama says, “compromise,” some of my siblings on the left hear, “sell-out.” So, Lenin, on compromising.

Of course, in politics, where it is sometimes a matter of extremely complex relations—national and international—between classes and parties, very many cases will arise that will be much more difficult than the question of a legitimate “compromise” in a strike or a treacherous “compromise” by a strike-breaker, treacherous leader, etc. It would be absurd to formulate a recipe or general rule (“No compromises!”) to suit all cases. One must use one’s own brains and be able to find one’s bearings in each particular instance. It is, in fact, one of the functions of a party organisation and of party leaders worthy of the name, to acquire, through the prolonged, persistent, variegated and comprehensive efforts of all thinking representatives of a given class, the knowledge, experience and—in addition to knowledge and experience—the political flair necessary for the speedy and correct solution of complex political problems.

Greenwald would call him a sell-out.

By no means am I suggesting that Obama is the heir of Lenin, let alone a socialist. It’s very clear to me he is a little-“d” democrat, however, and that he made a decision a long time ago to work within the system to get things done.

Lenin, referring to Britain, very sensibly advocates work with the Labour Party against both the Liberals and Conservatives, contrary to Sylvia Pankhurst who recommended non-cooperation with Labour:

It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens [of Labour] are hopelessly reactionary. It is equally true that they want to assume power (though they would prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to “rule” along the old bourgeois lines, and that when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemanns and Noskes. All that is true. But it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution; what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support…

…[T]he fact that most British workers still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys or Scheidemanns and have not yet had experience of a government composed of these people—an experience which was necessary in Russia and Germany so as to secure the mass transition of the workers to communism—undoubtedly indicates that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone.

So, Lenin advocates working within legal, parliamentary means. Why? Because of something completely obvious, something that the US left needs to consider: the views of the actual majority of the working class are what matter, not the views of a tiny minority of quite radical leftists. In the US, the issue at stake is that huge portions of the working class identify and vote not even with Democrats, who are willing to respond to some kind of pressure (e.g., every decent piece of social legislation this country’s ever had, excepting possibly the Americans with Disabilities Act), but with the GOP, which institutionally despises them.

The second portion of Lenin’s point above, about “a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone,” is crucial, and not just for an understanding of Lenin himself. At this point the word “soviet” needs a definition for English readers. The word is simply the Russian for “council.” The soviets of the 1905 and 1917revolutions were local governing councils

St. Petersburg Soviet, 1905, including lil’ Trotsky. Practice makes perfect.

formed in the vacuum left when the state, in 1905, wavered, and in 1917 collapsed. “Soviet” means, in other words, direct, participatory democracy with a little “d.” I am well aware that this is not how the system developed in Russia, and the logistical demands of civil war are the most important reason the system didn’t. The point, however, is that Lenin came to power after Russian workers and, mutatis mutandis, peasants had had decades of experience making decisions for themselves in their local communities, centuries, you could say, if you count the mir, the Russian peasant commune.

In the US, participation is not the name of the game for most of us. Disenfranchisement and consumption are. We will not see democracy in this country until we increase the former until it’s normalized and decrease the latter until they are insignificant. It’s very clear to me, to take a painful example, that Guantanamo Bay is still open not because Obama is Bush-Cheney in sheep’s clothing, but because there was no public outcry, or rather none with sufficient weight, demanding its closure in 2009.

Lenin constantly chides the international left-wing for its failure to base its actions on the actual development of consciousness of an actual majority of real workers. Much is made in the US about the bloodiness of Bolshevik policy at its worst, so much that you might imagine that it was Stalin, not Lenin, who led the party to power in 1917. All of the damning evidence trotted out against Lenin, however, comes from the Civil War. If you want to hang Lenin for violence against civilians, so too will you have to hang Lincoln. More important for us is the fact that when the Bolsheviks actually took state power in October 1917, they did so in one of the most nearly bloodless coups d’etat the world has ever seen. Far from the huge deal we see in Eisenstein’s film,

After a single day of revolution eighteen people had been arrested and two had been killed.

Two people killed. That’s a good night in Rahm’s Chicago. How could the single most important coup d’etat yet in human history have been such a small affair? Because by the time it happened, nobody, or nearly nobody, was willing to defend the state as it existed, an overwhelming number of people wanted to dismantle it, and–this most critically–there was a replacement for the old state in the form of soviet, “council,” power, not only waiting in the wings but in actually experientially-existing form. The deal was done before it went down.

Bearing all this in mind, it’s clear at least to me that there’s a lot of work to be done in this country before we on the left demand a full, immediate transition to socialism, or a full, immediate dismantling of the security state, or full, immediate employment, etc. You can call for those things, but you’re going to be isolated very, very quickly, and you’ll only get to talk to the people who don’t need convincing. Lenin wouldn’t do that. He told you to get involved with the people you imagine you despise–because moderate leftists are worse, right?, than plutocrats–and work the daily grind of organizing labor. More importantly, you need to work to create structures in which working people get used to making decisions that count in their own lives for themselves. Ilyich wrote this.

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Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

A sculpture of the cat Behemoth from the novel...

We are Him.

I never, never reread books, but after the Pelevin novel and reading an interview with him, I decided to check out The Master and Margarita (in Burgin’s translation) for a second time.  Pelevin is convincing.

However, the effect of this book was really fantastic. There’s an expression “out of this world.” This book was totally out of the Soviet world. The evil magic of any totalitarian regime is based on its presumed capability to embrace and explain all the phenomena, their entire totality, because explanation is control. Hence the term totalitarian. So if there’s a book that takes you out of this totality of things explained and understood, it liberates you because it breaks the continuity of explanation and thus dispels the charms. It allows you to look in a different direction for a moment, but this moment is enough to understand that everything you saw before was a hallucination (though what you see in this different direction might well be another hallucination). The Master and Margarita was exactly this kind of book and it is very hard to explain its subtle effect to anybody who didn’t live in the USSR. Solzhenitsyn’s books were very anti-Soviet, but they didn’t liberate you, they only made you more enslaved as they explained to which degree you were a slave. The Master and Margarita didn’t even bother to be anti-Soviet yet reading this book would make you free instantly. It didn’t liberate you from some particular old ideas, but rather from the hypnotism of the entire order of things.

Ever in need of liberation, and all the more particularly now, I read the book.  Couldn’t put it down, actually: I polished it off in a week, more than once getting in bed at around 1 pm (partially depression in hindsight, I will admit…) and only getting up to make peanut butter and jelly or go to the bathroom.  It’s that good.  This, of course, is not news.  Everybody who has read it knows that.  If you haven’t read it, make it the next book on your list, or interrupt your current one.

The plot if you don’t know the book is as follows: Satan comes to Moscow in the late 1930’s for his annual ball, takes a woman named Margarita for his date.  Margarita is in love with the Master, who wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate, a topic completely out of step with Bolshevik orthodoxy, and who landed in an insane asylum as a result.  Periodically, Bulgakov intersperses chapters of the Pilate narrative into the broader Moscow narrative.

I’m not making an original point here, I know, but first-class satire, of which The Master and Margarita is one of a small number of crowning examples, is not just about being funny, or making fun of, or even about its object.  Satire is about a way of perceiving, that is, of not only its object but its subject.  To see the world through a satirical lens is joyful, and that a writer (or anyone else) can cause another person to experience that joy when subjectively gazing on a world with much suffering is an enormous act of skill and compassion.

Fundamentally, I get on this second read of the book, the novel is an act of enormous compassion on Bulgakov’s part.  Maybe I’m in a place in my life where I am more in need or open to compassion than I was when I first read it over ten years ago, but that’s what I took from the experience.  Again, for those who don’t know the book, Bulgakov was a writer who, for political reasons, couldn’t publish in the late 1920’s and 1930’s in the Soviet Union, but who did some work in theater.  Bulgakov did not have to put the bulk of his effort into a novel he knew wouldn’t be published in his lifetime, but he did.  It was an act of self-sacrifice, though not suicide, at least as far as his mental health was concerned, because though he never lost his mind properly, stress and anxiety (my friends!) were major problems for him.  He died of a congenital illness, but stress never improves health, too.  All this, and he still gave us this book.  That’s deeply loving.

That’s the most important thing about the book as far as I can tell, but it’s worth talking about technique.  I do not know of a more skilled novelist than Bulgakov.  Everything is in place: the narrative itself is absolutely compelling, the prose, which admittedly I read in translation, is beautiful, the jokes are hysterical, and the various references, literary, cultural, political, economic, are embedded in the narrative in such a way that not getting one–I took a degree in the history of this period of the USSR and I’d say I miss as many as I get–in no way impedes a reader’s connection to the book.  One experiences its detail at the level one can, but the depth of one’s experience is not contingent upon the depth of one’s knowledge of that detail.  One’s life can be changed on plot alone.  That’s literary skill.

Victor Pelevin, Buddha’s Little Finger

I picked up the Pelevin‘s Чапаев и Пустота, in English, “Chapaev and Void,” published with the English title, Buddha’s Little Finger, at the library and was immediately enthralled.  The introduction–part of the novel, in fact–claims the text to be the true telling of the story of Chapaev, narrated by Petka–you might say, “Petey,” in English–potentially titled, ‘The Garden of the Divergent Petkas’, the introduction written, apparently by the

Chairman of the Buddhist Front for Full and Final Liberation (FFL (b)) (IX)

Needless to say, I dug it.

Pelevin, my acquaintance had told me, actually practices Buddhism, and from what I read in an interview, he seems to me to be very serious about it, and not at all smug or off-putting in that way that some…well…judging mind, judging mind…He speaks:

I only study and practice my mind for which the Dharma of Buddha is the best tool I know: and it is exactly what the word Buddhism means to me. And I also totally accept the moral teaching of Buddhism because it is the necessary condition of being able to practice your mind.

That sounds about right, to me.  I found myself, not a third of the way through the book, realizing that it is best approached as a case-study, or koan to use the Japanese most familiar in the United States, like in the Blue Cliff Record.  Chapaev is the master, and Petka–as well as others–the students.  Petka, early in the novel, references the house-on-fire metaphor from the Lotus Sutra:

I should say that I was not in the least bit afraid of death.  In my situation to die was every bit as natural and reasonable as to leave a theater that has caught fire in the middle of a lackluster performance. (29)

That I know the feeling precisely only increased the humor of it, for me.

It is worth bearing in mind Linji, of whom I have written before:

The Master [Linji] saw a monk coming and held his fly whisk straight up. The monk made a low bow, whereupon the Master struck him a blow. The Master saw another monk coming and again held his fly whisk straight up. The monk paid no attention, whereupon the Master struck him a blow as well.

Chapaev uses a Mauser, rather than a fly whisk, but the principle is the same.

A sudden thunderous crash burst upon my ears, startling me so badly that I staggered backwards.  The lamp standing beside Kotovsky had exploded, splattering a cascade of glycerine across the table and a revolver appeared in his hand like magic.

Chapaev was standing in the doorway with his nickel-plated Mauser in his hand[…]

‘That was smart talking there, Grisha, about the drop of wax,’ he said in a thin, hoarse tenor, ‘but what’re you going to say now?  Where’s your great ocean of beans now?'[…]

‘The form, the wax–who created it all?’ Chapaev asked menacingly.  ‘Answer me!’

‘Mind,’ replied Kotovsky.

‘Where is it?  Show me.’

‘Mind is the lamp,’ said Kotovsky.  ‘I mean, it was.’

‘If mind is the lamp, then where do you go to now it’s broken?’

‘Then what is mind?’ Kotovsky asked in confusion.

Chapaev fired another shot, and the bullet transformed the ink-well standing on the table into a cloud of blue spray.

I felt a strange momentary dizziness.

Two bright red blotches had appeared on Kotovsky’s pallid cheeks.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘now I understand.  You’ve taught me a lesson, Vasily Ivanovich.  A serious lesson.’

‘Ah, Grisha,’ Chapaev said sadly, ‘what’s wrong with you?  You know yourself you can’t afford to make any mistakes now–you just can’t.  Because where you’re going there won’t be anyone to point out your mistakes, and whatever you say, that’s how it will be.’

Without looking up, Kotovsky turned on his heels and ran out of the barn. (200)

Yes, this is absolutely funny, creative, surreal, etc., but it is also very much the work of someone who is seriously engaging with Buddhism as a practice.  Satire, it seems to me, is the proper vehicle for Buddhist teaching, certainly Ch’an (Zen, in Japanese).  Ch’an masters are, as a group, vastly funnier on average than the population as a whole.

A last bit, which very much reminded me of a teaching I received from my Dharma teacher:

‘Let us start at the beginning.  There you stand combing a horse.  But where is this horse?’

Chapaev looked at me in amazement.  “Petka, have you gone completely off your chump?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘It’s right here in front of your face.’ (150)

The seriousness with which Pelevin has obviously approached Buddhism is evident here.  You know you are dealing with a clod if he or she talks about emptiness and denies the reality of things in particular.  That’s a cop-out.