Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Is Lenin still relevant?

This past week has seen a public debate in Russia over whether Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s embalmed body should be removed from Moscow’s Red Square, where it has been on public display since his death in 1924, and buried. Embalming has no history in Russia, so this was perceived as a weird thing to do at the time - and went against Lenin’s own wishes - but in the 89 years it has been accessible to the public, the body has become a site of pilgrimage / tourist-attracting oddity, depending on your viewpoint.

The fact that the placing of his body is still a hot topic of discussion in Russia shows the attachment that many still feel both to Lenin as a historical figure, and to the memory of the Soviet Union which he imagined, created, and ruled for its first 7 years. The few remaining communist states today still pledge their allegiance to the set of ideas loosely termed Marxism / Leninism, as do various socialist movements in the rest of the world. So does Lenin still have anything to teach us, or are his ideas a historical curio, like his embalmed body?

Lenin wrote a lot in his lifetime, but some of his key ideas concern the nature of the state. Lenin imagined the state as an instrument of control, both directly – through violence – and indirectly, through politics and culture. He thought that the state sets the parameters of what’s possible, and democracy functions within those parameters. It follows that those who control the state machinery control everything that happens in it, standing above democracy, because they dictate the conditions and parameters that shape democracy.

If you think about it, this analysis has a lot of resonance today. In the west, every political party takes it as gospel that international markets reign supreme, and that the role of politicians is to ensure that the markets continue to look favourably on their country. The invariable outcome is that states are run for the benefit of those who are already immensely rich and powerful, As far as mainstream politics goes, there genuinely is ‘no alternative’. Slavoj Zizek eloquently makes the same point on Cif last week.

The popular media in the UK - as Owen Jones pointed out in Chavs – constantly perpetuate the caricature of the feckless, irresponsible working class, creating an atmosphere where it’s socially acceptable to hate the poor. In contrast, we have shows like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice, where the very rich are shown as demi-Gods, with a stream of supplicants coming to degrade themselves in the desperate hope of winning their approval, and becoming – even slightly - more like them.

This cultural zeitgeist makes grossly unfair politics, like the austerity ideology, seem like a reflection of the ‘real world’. In turn, the cultural sphere reflects the political ‘realities’, creating a feedback loop which reinforces the status quo from all sides, and makes real alternatives difficult to even conceive of, let alone implement. Where efforts are made – such as Occupy and the student protests – the state is not above using violent means to suppress them. Lenin, who took it as a given that global communism would become an imminent reality, would be turning in his glass display case.

So what’s the answer? Lenin imagined an intellectual vanguard, which would violently seize the levers of state – in the name of the proletariat - and use them to create a different status quo, which would ultimately benefit everyone. The obvious problem with this is that it jars with our current understanding of human rights, freedom of speech, and democracy. The historical experience of the Soviet Union under Stalin is a grim testament to where Lenin’s ideas can lead.

But if we accept the premise that the status quo is fundamentally unfair, and that it’s impossible to significantly alter it through conventional democracy, then what else is there?

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