The actuality of Lenin and a Primer on the Leninist Party

Two recent posts by Jodi on Lukacs and Lenin:

October 11, 2010

The actuality of revolution

A central idea in Lukacs’s Lenin is that the leninist party presupposes the actuality of revolution. In this and upcoming posts, I hope to think more about this idea, both in terms of Lukacs’s account of Lenin and with respect to organizing now.

My initial impulse is to think about the actuality of revolution in connection with democracy to come.

Some on the post-structuralist left embrace the Derridean idea of a democracy that has and cannot arrive, that most be forever postponed, to come. This is an ostensible strength of democracy, that it cannot be realized. Although I don’t know Derrida well, I associate this idea with the possibility of deconstruction, with thinking, with some kind of openness or potential. It seems, then, a sort of gap that holds open a promise not to totalize, not to terrorize, a promise or commitment to futurity and the unknown. Any given decision or act will necessarily be lacking, but this very lack is the opening democracy demands.

In contrast with such an openness, the Leninist party appears as a specter of horror, as the remnant or trace of the failed revolution the terrors of which must be avoided at all costs. In such a vision (which may not be concretely held by anyone but seems vaguely intuited by most), communism is reduced not simply to the actual (which is always necessarily ruptured, incomplete, irreducible to itself, and pregnant with the unrealized potentials of the past) but to the parody of one actuality, an actuality that itself as changed over time and from different perspectives (for example, the difference between US presentations of the USSR during WWII and US presentations of communism in 2010). In such a reduction (which is an ongoing process), actuality is displaced by an impossible figure, a figure so resolute as to be incapable of revolutionary change.

What is the actuality of revolution? I’ll look at more of the details from Lukacs in subsequent posts, but at the minimum we can say that it involves change, confusion, disturbance, chaos, and the possibility wherein tendencies in one direction can suddenly move in a completely opposite direction. For the Leninist party, the actuality of revolution requires discipline and preparation, not because it can accurately predict everything that will occur, because it cannot, and not because it has an infallible theory, which it does not. Discipline and preparation are necessary in order to adapt to the circumstances. The party has to be consistent and flexible because of revolution is chaotic.

The actuality of revolution, then, is kind of enabling impediment. It is a condition of constitutive non-knowledge for which the party can prepare (and help prepare the proletariat). It’s a condition that demands response, if the party is to be accountable to the people, if it is to function as a communist party (it is the difference that communist makes).

The difference between actuality and futurity (or the perpetual displacement of democracy into an impossible future), then, is a difference in preparation, discipline, responsiveness, planning. The former requires it, the latter seems to eschew it or postpone it. For the Leninst party, to postpone is to fail now.

The actuality of revolution means that one cannot perpetually defer a decision, action, or judgment; it means that one undertakes it, fully exposed to one’s lack of coverage in history or even in the revolutionary moment. It means that one has to trust that the revolutionary process will bring about new constellations, arrangements, skills, convictions, that through it we will make something else, something we aren’t imagining now.

Perhaps this seems less surprising, less far-fetched, now that, for a decade, many of us have been making something else together. We’ve been linking and connecting, doing more than forwarding kitten photos. We’ve been building alliances and awareness, sharing knowledge of crimes, inequalities, violence, exploitation. We’ve been hearing the right claiming their revolution and we’ve been swept up in the reality of their counter-revolution. We’ve heard the neoliberals and financial despots claim that they are entitled to 90 percent of the wealth and we know, and now because we are connected know that we know, that they are wrong.

It could be that now is when ideas that have become abstract and hard to comprehend, ideas like the proletariart as the subject-object of history, may start to make more sense. To me, now, the idea of the subject-object of history indexes feedback loops, self-organized networks, emergent formations where we are bringing ourselves into being as something new; we are the objects of ourselves. We are already making our setting. The point is to make it differently and to take back what is being taken away–products of our work, opportunities to share, spaces to live, healthy food and environments.

The actuality of revolution is the press/pressure that we feel, that we can’t put off but must redirect.

Post 2:

October 11, 2010

Primer on the Leninist party

To think about the attributes of the Leninist party, one needs to understand its setting. The structure of the party is completely imbricated in its setting in the sense that it is a response to it, produced through its interaction with it, an interaction that is inseparable from the revolutionary situation. The party ‘is not but is becoming.’

1.    Class struggle: the party is necessary because class consciousness isn’t automatic. Folks don’t automatically understand their conditions in terms of exploitation or, if they do, dominant ideologies provide interpretations of this exploitation that displace possibilities of resistance. Another way to put them, the people or the proletariat doesn’t know itself and what it wants.

2.    The actuality of revolution: the party doesn’t make the revolution. Rather, the party is an instrument of class struggle in a revolutionary period. In such a period, there is turmoil among multiple social forces, multiple factions and factors within society as well as within the proletariat itself (recall, the proletariat is not one or unified). The party, then, is a discipline organization of the ‘fully conscious’  elements of the proletariat within this setting.

As I mentioned in the preceding post [above], the actuality of revolution is confused and changeable. Lukacs’ description of the Leninst party, then, cannot be separated from this actuality. Lukacs writes:

the Leninst form of organization is inseparably connected with the ability to foresee the approaching revolution. For only in this context is every deviation from the right path fateful and disastrous for the proletariat; only in this context can a decision on an apparently trivial everyday issue be of profound significance to it . . .

It would be easy to read this passage as implying a claim to be able to foresee the revolution, to know the right path. But what about an alternative, one that emphasizes not a knowledge that Lukacs explicitly acknowledges is impossible in a revolutionary situation but an organizational form that recognizes and responds to the seriousness of the setting in which it finds itself? So the Leninist party is connected to the precarity of the revolutionary setting. It is an organizational form that doesn’t take the normal for granted (the normal or everyday is precisely what a revolution disrupts) but instead proceeds with an appreciation for the fact that everything is up for grabs. As Lukacs says later in the text, ‘the actual time and circumstances are hardly ever exactly determinable.’

3.  In a revolutionary setting, allies from different classes join the proletariat–and this brings confusion; these other elements can ‘deflect it from its path.’ Lukacs writes:

The working class, provided it knows what it wants and what its class interests dictate, can free both itself and these other groups from social bondage.

We already know, though, that the working class doesn’t know what it wants and what its interests dictate. We already know that this sort of class consciousness is not spontaneous but has to be produced. And, it’s not that the party will know certainly what the working class wants. But it will know that the lack of such knowledge should not impede action because it cannot forestall the actuality of revolution. In a way, the party is the strict organization of a limit or lack, a response to the newness or openness of history. Lukacs writes:

If events had to be delayed until the proletariat entered the decisive struggle united and clear in its aims, there would never be a revolutionary situation.

4.    The Leninst party combines strict selection of party members with total solidarity with and support for all the oppressed and exploited within capitalist society.

5.     The party must prepare the revolution. Here the party is producer and product (feedback, networks, self-organization, emergence). It is an exclusive organization that interacts with, and learns from, the struggles and suffering of the people. Sometimes the party will exacerbate tendencies; sometimes it will have to change course. So it has to try to foresee and forecast and prepare the people in light of these forecasts, but these are in no way guarantees. They are not the mechanistic outcomes of deterministic laws. Rather, there are moments of chance, contingency, indeterminacy. The party has to be able immediately adjust to an ever-changing situation.

6.    The reading I’m giving of Lukacs’s account of the Leninist party might seem to founder on the following:

Because the party, on the basis of its knowledge of society in its totality, represents the interests of the whole proletariat (and in doing so mediates the intersts of all the oppressed-the future of mankind), it must unite within it all the contradictions in which the tasks that arise from the very heart of this social totality are expressed […strict selection of party members, unconditional devotion to revolution, ability to merge themselves in lives of stuggling and suffering masses]…

I don’t think my reading has to founder, though (and, honestly, I am less interested in fidelity to Lukacs than I am in finding an organizational form that could work for us today). To unite contradictions within itself is not to resolve them: rather, it is to express them as contradictions. The Lenininst revolutionaries take on themselves the demands and conflicts of the revolution. They perform the revolutionary situation, in all its chaos and uncertainty. So the Leninist party cannot be a party that makes demands on the people; it has to be a party that makes present to the people the demands they are already making on themselves. Lukacs:

For the stringency of the demands made on party members si only a way of making clear to the whole proletariat (and all strata exploited by capitalism) where their true interests lie, and of making them conscious of the true basis of their hiterhto unconscious actions, vague ideology and confused feelings.

7.      Learning depends on action and struggle and hence on discipline and flexibility.



About john hutnyk

Writer on culture, cities, diaspora, history, film, prisons, colonialism, education, Marxism. Studied and taught in Australia at Deakin and Melbourne Universities; and in the UK in Manchester University’s Institute for Creative and Cultural Research; before moving to Goldsmiths in 1998, and becoming Academic Director of the Centre for Cultural Studies in 2004-2014. Has held visiting researcher posts in Germany at the South Asia Institute and Institute fur Ethnologie at Heidelberg University, and Visiting Professor posts in InterCultural Studies at Nagoya City University Japan, Zeppelin University and Hamburg University, Germany, Sociology at Mimar Sinan University, Istanbul, Turkey and at the Graduate institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies, National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. Immediate past adjunct Professor of RMIT University, Melbourne and GIAN Visiting Professor Jadavpur Uni Kolkata.
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