Sympathy for the Devil

Jed Brandt Jun 15, 2005

Revolution At The Gates
Zizek on Lenin:
The 1917 Writings
Ed. Slavoj Zizek

While Marx gets intellectual street cred for laying bare the organs and arteries of capitalism, Lenin is forever judged by his leadership of the October Revolution and the disputed legacy of the Soviet Union that followed. Where Marx is the philosopher who saw the future in the present, the decay and collapse of “real existing socialism” turned Lenin into the personification of a glorious future now far behind us. Or not, if Zizek’s project of “repeating” Lenin breaks through dismissal and impotent nostalgia.

Revolution At The Gates is really two books. Several recent essays by Zizek accompany a stunning anthology of Lenin’s writings between Russia’s February and October revolutions. Without presenting it as a trans-historical roadmap, Zizek excavates Lenin’s intervention into 1917’s massive eruption of “revolutionary micro-politics,” with millions in open revolt – refusing to fight Russia’s wars, seizing rural lands and ignoring the official government – but hardly guaranteed any lasting victory by a left stuck trailing behind popular sentiment. The action of Lenin has resonance in this gap between the promise of the February revolution that brought down the Tsar and the second revolution in October when the ruling classes were actually overthrown.

Zizek avoids the temptation to wax nostalgic for the “good old revolutionary days” and instead seeks out what he calls an “existential Lenin,” the revolutionary willing to risk everything, dismissive of reasonable accommodation to power as it exists and determined to make history instead of lamenting it.

Instead of a cold tactician calculating grand politics over real human bodies, Lenin emerges as a hard-nosed visionary, setting his sights on the emancipatory possibilities of his age that few others could see. Lenin’s essays are the bridge between the intoxication of revolutionary potential, in which “everything seems possible,” and the “hard work of social reconstruction which is to be performed if this enthusiastic explosion is to leave its traces in the inertia of the social edifice itself.”

Zizek calls the shelving of this Lenin a “prohibition on thinking,” where thinking is the act of creating the world anew from the material of what is. To deny the leap from resistance to revolution, argues Zizek, is to accommodate power with the same haplessness that the Anybody-but-Bush desperation was but the most recent, and tragic, example of. It is to equate the act of revolution against tyrants with tyranny itself. Instead of “socialism or barbarism,” the choice is claimed to be liberal capitalism or the gulag. Every ruling class claims its destruction will leave the world in ruins. But who said the left has to agree?

Lenin’s fire burns not just the old order that wasted Europe in the first world war, but the passivity of the ostensibly radical left.

It is today, with imperialism off balance and the left largely overtaken by events on the ground, that Zizek calls for a repeat of Lenin.

He writes: “‘Lenin’ is not the nostalgic name for old dogmatic certainty; quite the contrary, the Lenin who is to be retrieved is the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which the old co-ordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to reinvent Marxism.”


Zizek is at his best when confronting the cynical opposition of popular resistance movements and revolutionary organization. Politics certainly need to be reinvented. The question of who will do the reinventing is as primary as ever.

Zizek’s anthology is a molotov tossed at the feet of rhetorical radicals such as John Holloway, who speak of politics as an unwinnable game of moral compromise, and those leftists who so despaired at the right-wing fanaticism of Bush that they gathered like lemmings behind the pro-war candidacy of John Kerry.

The menagerie of social-democrats, hapless liberals and assorted utopians Lenin overcame (largely through the force of these collected writings) to push the Russian Revolution forward from its ecstatic potentials to actual victory should be intimately familiar to today’s activists and organizers, even if their long Russian names are not. Despite a radically different terrain, the vices and virtues of the left remain remarkably the same.

After so many defeats, and with such powerful enemies, the temptation of activists to romanticize permanent opposition is real. The world is crying out for change and millions around the world are moving. The question remains the same: What is to be done? Zizek doesn’t answer it, but asking is a start.

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