Seize the urgent moment!


/1/ – ‘Comrade Lenin cleanses the earth of filth’

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First and foremost it is important to note that this post is partially caused by Larval Subject’s recent post on radical change. That is somewhat an oversimplification as he addresses social dynamics and a discussion of differing models of liberation, but change seems to be the crux of the issue. At the same time this post acknowledges some needed background work in my obsession with the new or the novel and, in particular, how such concepts are filtered through my major theoretical touchstones: Badiou and Žižek.

The Leninist address “What is to be Done?” (as well as the pamphlet that bears the same) is the political question par excellence of the current, and perhaps every epoch. It is important to note that beyond the particularities of the singularity ‘Russian Revolution’ that Lenin’s work is revolutionary in that he always found himself eclipsing the usual material actions donned radical. Why is this case?

What’s first to dismiss is the outright rejection of Lenin as a lesser form of Stalin. There is the ailing Lenin who created the secret police and who created the infrastructure of the Soviet Union and initiated the Red Terror. As Slavoj Žižek points out, the Lenin to be celebrated and explored is the Lenin between the revolutions or the Lenin-in-becoming, the mad Lenin who stood alone against his own party.

Part of this celebratory view of Lenin appears in regards to the First World War. In a situation that seemingly disavowed the possibility of such a move, Lenin rejected the very terms of WWI, the nationalist alignment. Lenin could not believe that the left of his country would validate what he considered, from the outright, as imperialist war. The concept of nationalism was, and still remains, the most tempting poisoned apple in the political sphere. The temptation of nationalism is a prime example of why Žižek, in his edited collection of Lenin’s writings Revolution at the Gates, argues that revolution must strike twice. The first revolution can go so far in that remains within the context of the world is combating, and therefore only the second revolution can truly break the previous political world asunder. Yet, at the same time, certain conditions must be met in order for the either break to be possible. This tension is evident in Lenin’s first of the four “Letters from afar.”

/2/ – And so…

Taking a look at both Slavoj Zizek’s and Alain Badiou’s writings on Lenin the two most important aspects of Lenin are:

First point: Lenin radically re-centers the question of thought into politics, put another way, he reasserts the importance of theory.

Second point: Lenin’s politics, although negatively anchored by the concept of party, are a politics that is very much of the moment, that does not greatly weigh itself down with its own concerns over futurity.

What is also important to see in regards to Lenin, and this is something that both Badiou and Žižek share, is the importance of discipline (a point which is brought up on the aforementioned Larval Subjects entry as well.) And, as Badiou points out, Lenin himself always argued for the importance of discipline for the proletariat because, with limited resources, they had little else to rely on.

[It is worth mentioning that sometime back in the blogosphere when Žižek wrote a brief piece on Zack Snyder’s 300, (and interestingly a film I had previously defended utilizing Žižek’s work) there was a vicious uproar against his celebration of discipline. I find it interesting that the idea of discipline was refuted after being placed specifically in terms of bureaucratic or governmental discipline instead of personal discipline. Žižek’s valorization of discipline, I had thought, fell in terms of Badiou’s statement in regards to art, that we must ‘Be merciless censors of ourselves.’]

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On the first point: Žižek is quick to defend not only the relevance of theory but, almost insanely, the everyday relevance of theory. He staunchly attacks several figures, even those who may appear to be the only remaining figures of a ‘radical left’ (if there even is such a thing anymore) such as Noam Chomsky for dismissing the usefulness of theory. As I have argued many times, Chomsky’s problem is that he believes all that the masses requires is knowledge. He has argued that ‘if people only knew’ then they would challenge the government, that they would rise up. The terrible truth is that apathy weighs far heavier on the chests of the masses than Chomsky is willing to admit.

On a related matter, and this is particularly evident when reading post-modernist or related texts, it seems that there is too much rethinking and retracing and not enough thinking and forging ahead. One can’t help but think of Nietzsche’s brief pamphlet The Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life, where either any concept of glory is shot down or those who appreciate the glorious remain fixed in an antiquarian trap, forever dusting the lamented volumes. The point here than is to initiate a history lesson that is active to say the least.

On the second point: Again, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there is a terrible importance to the concept of defining utopia, as per Žižek’s suggestion, not as a distance concern of the future, but one that is about the very moment we are existing in now. One of survival, a utopia that isn’t possible but fundamentally necessary. This same sentiment can be gleamed from Mao’s 1930 text “A Single spark can start a prairie fire” where he writes: “when I say that there will soon be a high tide of revolution in China, I am emphatically not speaking of something which in the words of some people ‘is possibly coming’, something illusory, unattainable and devoid of significance for action. It is like a ship far out at sea whose masthead can already be seen from the shore.”

This is also apparent in Lenin’s first letter from afar when he writes that we must bring the people “peace, bread and real freedom.”

/3/ – To the French…

Beyond the revolutionary moment, the lingering question is always – how is it that the revolution always becomes gelled in a kind of terrible horror? One of the most well known cases of this is the French Revolution where, after destroying the monarch and revamping the national government, Robespierre’s Committee for Public Safety soon began the reign of terror, liquidating countless numbers of opponents as well as the falsely accused. Robespierre’s closest disciple, St. Just, was aware of this before it happened when he stated “The revolution is frozen” soon after the execution of Georges Danton (which he had himself had pushed for).

Robespierre was certainly a man who could write beautifully, so much so that one could almost overlook the uncertainty in his text “On the Principles of Revolutionary Government.” Robespierre writes: “under the revolutionary system, public power itself is obliged to defend itself against all factions attacking it.” But beyond the possible (and eventually materialized) excesses of this fervor lies the danger of ‘the forces of moderation’ (to borrow an unintentionally ironic Bushism). In the same text Robespierre writes: “If we had to choose between an excess of patriotic fervor and the total absence of civic spirit, or the stagnation of moderantism, there would be no hesitation. A vigorous body, tormented by an excess of sap, leaves more resources than a corpse.” Elsewhere in the text, and in his other writings, Robespierre seems to fall too quickly to the nationalist trap as he describes the soldiers of the republic crying for their homeland in battle.

In his text Metapolitics Badiou argues for the importance of the French revolution. He argues that the standard assumption is that the convention of the 9 Thermidor brought the terror to the close and that all was then well in the republic. This point is upset by several factors – the first being that the so called terror was ended by an act just as bloody as that which the Thermidoreans were denouncing (over twenty souls executed without trial). The most damning resolution of the Thermidoreans however, was that they decided that the concept of virtue was too dangerous, that the government could not concern itself with such issues, that instead, it should only be the guaranteer of property and safety.

Both Robespierre and St. Just made it clear in their writings and speeches that virtue goes hand in hand with terror, that only a certain amount of brutality, against the guilty, can maintain any hope for the longevity of virtue. As Badiou points out the result of the Thermidor ‘revolution’ was not only one of an abandonment of virtue as a goal, but transformed the very way the state viewed itself. He writes: “Thermidor opens a sequence wherein constitutional repression is backed up by an anti-popular vision of the State. It is not so much a question of ending the terror exerted over adversaries as of bringing about a radical shift in the source and target of that terror. From now on its source is the State constituted by rich, eligible voters; while its target is every will constituted or assembled on the basis of a popular declaration” (p. 126).

It is on this point that one can move to the communist revolution in China, as well as a discussion of one of Mao’s French inspirations – the experimental government of the Paris commune following the revolutionary years.

/4/ – And to Red China…

One particularly daring and brilliant moment of Mao’s is when, instead of the standard rejection of ideology, he brazenly opposes the strength of ideology to the ineffectualness of liberalism in his short text “Combat Liberalism.” Mao sternly rejects the possibility that we can be ‘post-ideological.’ As Žižek has pointed out on numerous occasions – isn’t it obvious that the most ideological position is to state that one is beyond ideology? To claim that one is simply attending to the bureaucratic measures of the state denies not only that the state is committing acts of terror (in the name of bureaucratic efficiency/prosperity) but it even more insultingly claims that the State itself is incapable of terror.

In his text “The Cultural Revolution, The last revolution?” Badiou, in his text Polemics, discusses the lessons learned from the Maoist political event. His own career as a political activist began as one dedicated to Maoist principles and it has continued to affect his political thought. Badiou notes how being a Maoist taught him to “be both the arrow and the bull’s eye” because the ‘old world view’ always haunts us (p. 291). Here again we have the logic of the two revolutions, one must strike at oneself, commit the insane second revolution, in order to truly break out of the old way of seeing.

Badiou attempts to wrest from the mess of the cultural revolution a kernel of worth. Badiou argues that the entire revolution embodies a contradiction, mostly having to do with the aftermath of a revolution. The most apparent problem amongst Mao’s ranks was the worry of the tyranny of a the proletariat, and that the eliminated bourgeoisie could simply reconstitute themselves within the Communist party (p. 298). Furthermore, there remains the problem of the state’s repressive apparatus and who should control such a entity. As Badiou notes via Marx, the very goal of Marxism to decimate all repressive structures because they are fundamentally in the interests of the bourgeoisie (p. 305).

Here we should make some fuss over the Paris Commune. The commune took place after France’s horrible failure in the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s. What is radical about the commune is that it was a national form of government that was somewhere in between communism (according to Marx) and anarchism (according to Bakunin) that sprang up in an incredibly small amount of time. The commune, resulting in part from angry, over extended workers and disillusioned soldiers took control of cannons and set up ‘canon parks’ all around Paris. While the commune was short lived, it demonstrated the capability of mass democracy, in the hands of the populace, to administer radical change at an incredible rate. Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao and many others have drawn numerous lessons from the commune and it has been viewed by many as one of the better prototypes for a truly democratic society. [Something to note though is that some, and Marx in particular, believed that the communards did not go far enough, they refused to raze the national banks and were perhaps overly concerned with how they would be viewed internationally.

Now, let’s return to China. Badiou then goes on to discuss Mao’s argument, in one of his famous communiques, that any construction necessitated a brutal kind of destruction. Now, something important to note here is Badiou’s past celebration of destruction as part of political work. Badiou later recanted this proposition, put forward in his first major work Theory of the Subject, and then began to advocate for subtraction in place of it. This leads us to Badiou’s assertion that the Cultural Revolution is the last of it’s kind. For Badiou, the major result of the cultural revolution is a kind of saturation of party politics on the whole. Badiou argues that every political sequence has an end in that that particular sequence becomes saturated, where nothing new can be derived from such a sequence.

So at this point, we return to the question posited at the beginning of my previous entry – how does the new or novel appear? This is the Badiouian question par excellence.


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