Seize the Day: Lenin’s Legacy Slavoj Žižek

The left is undergoing a shattering experience: the progressive movement is being compelled to reinvent its whole project. What tends to be forgotten, however, is that a similar experience gave birth to Leninism. Consider Lenin’s shock when, in the autumn of 1914, every European social democratic party except the Serbs’ followed the “patriotic line.” How difficult it must have been, at a time when military conflict had cut the European continent in half, not to take sides. Think how many supposedly independent-minded intellectuals, Freud included, succumbed, if only briefly, to the nationalist temptation.

In 1914, an entire world disappeared, taking with it not only the bourgeois faith in progress, but the socialist movement that accompanied it. Lenin (the Lenin of What Is to Be Done?) felt the ground fall away from beneath his feet—there was, in his desperate reaction, no sense of satisfaction, no desire to say, “I told you so.” At the same time, the catastrophe made possible the key Leninist Event: the overcoming of the evolutionary historicism of the Second International. The kernel of the Leninist “utopia”—the radical imperative to smash the bourgeois state and invent a new communal social form without a standing army, police force or bureaucracy, in which all could take part in the administration of social matters—arises directly from the ashes of 1914. It was not a theoretical project for some distant future: in October 1917, Lenin claimed that “we can at once set in motion a state apparatus consisting of 10 if not 20 million people.” What we should recognize is the “madness” (in the Kierkegaardian sense) of this utopia—in this context, Stalinism stands for a return to “common sense.” The explosive potential of State and Revolution cannot be overestimated: in its pages, as Neil Harding wrote in Leninism (1996), “the vocabulary and grammar of the Western tradition of politics was abruptly dispensed with.”

What followed can be called, borrowing the title of Althusser’s text on Machiavelli, la solitude de Lenine: a time when he stood alone, struggling against the current in his own party. When, in his April Theses of 1917, Lenin identified the Augenblick, the unique chance for a revolution, the initial response on the part of a large majority of his party colleagues was either stupor or contempt. No prominent Bolshevik leader supported his call to revolution, and the editorial board of Pravda took the extraordinary step of dissociating themselves and the Party from Lenin’s proposals. Bogdanov characterized the April Theses as “the delirium of a madman”; Nadezhda Krupskaya concluded: “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”

Indispensable though Lenin’s personal intervention was, the story of the October Revolution should not be turned into the myth of a lone genius. Lenin succeeded because his appeal, while bypassing the party nomenclature, was understood at the level of revolutionary micro politics: local committees were set up throughout Russia’s big cities, determined to ignore the authority of the “legitimate” government and to take things into their own hands.

In the spring of 1917, Lenin was fully aware of the paradox of the situation: now that the February Revolution had toppled the tsarist regime, Russia was the most democratic country in Europe, with an unprecedented degree of mass mobilization, and freedom of organization and of the press—and yet this freedom made everything ambiguous. If there is a common thread running through everything Lenin wrote between the February and October Revolutions, it is his insistence on the gap that separates the political struggle from its definable goals: immediate peace, the redistribution of land and, of course, the giving over of “all power to the soviets,” that is, the dismantling of existing state apparatuses and their replacement with new commune-like forms of social management. This is the gap between revolution in the sense of the imaginary explosion of freedom at the sublime moment of universal solidarity when “everything seems possible,” and the hard work of social reconstruction which must be performed if this explosion is to leave any traces in the social edifice.

This gap—which recalls the interval between 1789 and 1793 in the French Revolution—is the space of Lenin’s unique intervention. The fundamental lesson of revolutionary materialism is that revolution must strike twice. It is not that the first moment has the form of a revolution, with the substance having to be filled in later, but rather the opposite: the first revolution retains the old mindset, the belief that freedom and justice can be achieved if we simply use the already-existing state apparatus and its democratic mechanisms, that the “good” party might win a free election and implement the socialist transformation “legally.” (The clearest expression of this illusion is Karl Kautsky’s thesis, formulated in the 1920s, that the logical form of the first stage leading from capitalism to socialism would be a parliamentary coalition of bourgeois and proletarian parties.) Those who oscillate, and are afraid to take the second step of overcoming the old forms, are those who (in Robespierre’s words) want a “revolution without revolution.”

In his writings of 1917, Lenin saves his most acerbic irony for those who engage in a vain search for some kind of guarantee for the revolution, either in the guise of a reified notion of social necessity (“it is too early for the socialist revolution, the working class is not yet mature”), or of a normative, democratic legitimacy (“the majority of the population is not on our side, so the revolution would not really be democratic”). It is as if the revolutionary agent requires the permission of some representative of the Other before he risks seizing state power. For Lenin, as for Jacques Lacan, the revolution “ne s’autorise que d’elle-même.” The wariness of taking power prematurely, the search for a guarantee, is an expression of fear before the abyss. This is what Lenin repeatedly denounces as “opportunism”: an inherently false position which hides fear behind a protective screen of supposedly objective facts, laws or norms. The first step in combating it is to announce clearly: “What, then, is to be done? We must aussprechen was ist, ‘state the facts,’ admit the truth that there is a tendency, or an opinion, in our central committee … ”

What happened when Lenin became more conscious of the limitations of Bolshevik power? Here a contrast should be drawn between Lenin and Stalin. In Lenin’s very last writings, long after he renounced the utopia of State and Revolution, there are the contours of a modest “realistic” project for the Bolsheviks. Given the economic underdevelopment and cultural backwardness of the Russian masses, there was, he realized, no way for Russia to “pass directly to socialism.” All that Soviet power could do was to combine the moderate politics of “state capitalism” with the cultural education of the peasant masses. Facts and figures revealed, “what a vast amount of urgent spadework we still have to do to reach the standard of an ordinary West European civilized country … We must bear in mind the semi-Asiatic ignorance from which we have not yet extricated ourselves.” Lenin repeatedly warns against the direct “implantation of communism”: “Under no circumstances should we immediately introduce strictly communist ideas into the countryside. As long as the countryside lacks the material basis for communism, it will be harmful, in fact, I should say, fatal, for communism to do so.” His recurrent motif is: “The most harmful thing here would be haste.” Against this insistence on “cultural revolution,” Stalin opted for the anti-Leninist notion of “building socialism in one country.”

This does not mean, however, that Lenin silently adopted the Menshevik criticism of Bolshevik utopianism, that revolution must follow a preordained course, and can occur only when the necessary material conditions are in place. Lenin realizes, writing in the early 1920s, that the main task for the Bolsheviks is to meet the responsibilities of a progressive bourgeois regime (the universal provision of education and so on). However, the fact that the agent of development is proletarian revolutionary power changes the situation fundamentally: there is a chance that these measures will be implemented in such a way as to throw off their bourgeois ideological framework—education will serve the people, rather than being a mask for the promotion of bourgeois class interests. The properly dialectical paradox is that the very hopelessness of the Russian situation (the backwardness that compels the proletarian power to engage in the bourgeois civilizing process) can be turned into an advantage: “What if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of the workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilization in a different way from that of West European countries?”

We have, then, two incompatible models of the revolution: to wait for the moment of the final crisis, when revolution will explode “at its own proper time” according to the necessity of historical evolution; or to assert that revolution has no “proper time,” that the opportunity for it is something that emerges and has to be seized. Lenin insists that the extraordinary set of circumstances, like those in Russia in 1917, can provide a way to undermine the norm itself. I would argue that this belief is more persuasive today than ever. We live in an era when the state and its apparatuses, including its political agents, are less and less able to articulate key issues. The illusion that the pressing problems facing Russia in 1917 (peace, land distribution, etc.) could have been solved through parliamentary means is in effect the same as today’s illusion that the ecological threat can be avoided by applying market logic (making polluters pay for the damage they cause).

How, then, does Hélène Carrère d’Encausse’s new study stand in the light of all this? Her basic approach is that, now communism is over, it is time for an objective assessment of Lenin’s contribution. Within these coordinates, the book tries to give Lenin his due. Carrère d’Encausse makes it clear that the Stalinist state apparatus grew out of the New Economic Enterprise (NEP) compromise. If the state was to step back and make room for the market, private property and so on, it had to achieve a tighter control of society so that the gains of the revolution would not be endangered by the emerging new classes. A capitalist economic infrastructure was to be counterbalanced by a socialist political and ideological superstructure.

Carrère d’Encausse also foregrounds how, in the struggle to succeed Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, and the rest had nothing but contempt for Stalin’s new administrative role as general secretary, dismissing him as a mere manager: they failed to appreciate the power that went with the post. When, in 1922, Lenin submitted to Pravda the article “Better Fewer, but Better,” which was directed against Stalin’s authoritarianism, Bukharin, the editor-in-chief, saw no reason to publish it; one member of the Politburo suggested that they print a single copy of the paper containing the text, and give it to Lenin.

On the national question, Carrère d’Encausse writes that Lenin unconditionally opposed the nationalism of large countries and endorsed the right to sovereignty of small nations, independently of who was in control of them. For Russia itself, he advocated a policy that would favor the oppressed small nations—”a sort of affirmative action before the fact.” Today, this stance is more resonant than ever. It is no surprise that anti-Americanism in Europe is most clearly discernible in the “big” nations. The complaint is often made that globalization threatens the sovereignty of nation states; but it is not the small states so much as the second-rank (ex-)world powers—countries like the UK, Germany, and France—which fear that, once fully immersed in the newly emerging global empire, they will be reduced to the same level as, say, Austria, Belgium, or even Luxembourg. The hostility to Americanization in France, expressed by both leftists and right-wing nationalists, is ultimately a refusal to accept the fact that France is losing its hegemonic role in Europe.

The leveling of larger and smaller nation-states should be counted among the beneficial effects of globalization: the contempt shown in the West for the postcommunist Eastern European states betrays a wounded narcissism. Interestingly, the same logic was at work in the former Yugoslavia: not only Serbs, but most of the Western powers, thought Serbia alone had enough substance to form a state on its own. Throughout the 1990s, even the radical democratic critics of Milošević who rejected Serb nationalism acted on the presupposition that only Serbia, after overthrowing Milošević, could become a thriving democracy; the other ex-Yugoslav nations were too provincial to do so. This brings to mind Engels’ dismissal of the small Balkan nations as reactionary relics.

On Lenin’s personality, Carrère d’Encausse rehashes all the old arguments about his ruthless cruelty and indifference toward mass suffering, but discussing the fate of the Worker’s Opposition in 1921, she does note that “this was another example of Lenin’s singular method, consisting of eliminating not his opponents but their ideas, allowing the losers to remain in the governing bodies.” It is hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Stalinist policies. Lenin’s detractors like to evoke his reaction to Beethoven’s Appassionata—he started to cry, and then claimed that a revolutionary cannot afford such sentimentality—as proof of his excessive powers of self-control. However, might this anecdote not simply bear witness to an extreme sensitivity, and Lenin’s knowledge that it needed to be kept in check for the sake of the political struggle?

In their very triviality, the details of the Bolsheviks’ daily lives in 1917 and the following years make it obvious how different they were from the Stalinist nomenclature. Leaving his flat for the Smolny Institute, on the evening of October 24, 1917, Lenin took a tram and asked the conductress if there was any fighting going on in the city center that day. In the years immediately after the October Revolution, he mostly traveled around in a car with only his driver and bodyguard Gil for protection; they were shot at, stopped by the police and arrested (the policemen did not recognize Lenin). Once, after a visit to a school in the suburbs, bandits posing as police stole the car, and Lenin and Gil had to walk to the nearest police station to report the theft. On August 30, 1918, Lenin was shot while talking to workers outside a factory he had just visited. Gil drove him to the Kremlin, where there were no doctors; Nadezhda Krupskaya suggested that someone should run out to the nearest grocer’s shop for a lemon.

As to Lenin’s historical achievement, Carrère d’Encausse rightly emphasizes that his genius lay in his ability to move beyond the typical narrative of the revolution, in which a brief, ecstatic explosion of utopian energy is followed by a sobering morning after. Lenin possessed the strength to prolong the utopian moment. Nowhere in his work is there any trace of what Lacan called the “narcissism of the lost cause,” displayed by those who cannot wait for the revolution to fail so that they might admire and bemoan it. This is what made Lenin the politician of the 20th century—the century of the passion of the real.

As Alain Badiou has said, whereas the 19th century was characterized by utopian or “scientific” projects and ideals which were to be fulfilled in the future, the 20th aimed at delivering the thing itself, at realizing the longed-for New Order. The ultimate and defining experience of the 20th century was the direct experience of the real as distinct from everyday social reality—the real, in its extreme violence, is the price to be paid for peeling off the deceiving layers of reality. Recalling the trenches of the first world war, Ernst Jünger celebrated face-to-face combat as the authentic intersubjective encounter: authenticity resides in the act of violent transgression, whether in the form of an encounter with the Lacanian real—the thing Antigone confronts when she violates the order of the city—or of Bataillean excess. In the domain of sexuality, the icon of this passion of the real is Oshima’s Ai No Corrida, in which the couple’s love is radicalized into mutual torture and eventually death—a clear echo of Bataille’s Story of the Eye. Another example would be the hardcore websites that allow you to observe the inside of a vagina from the vantage point of a tiny camera at the tip of a penetrating dildo. When one gets too close to the desired object, erotic fascination turns into disgust at the real of the bare flesh. Walking to his theater in July 1956, Brecht passed a column of Soviet tanks rolling toward the Stalinallee to crush the workers’ rebellion. He waved at them and later that day wrote in his diary that, at that moment, he was for the first time in his life tempted to join the Communist Party—an exemplary case of the passion of the real. It was not that Brecht supported the military action, but that he perceived and endorsed the violence as a sign of authenticity.

According to Badiou, the underlying premise of our postpolitical era, in which the administration of social affairs is replacing politics proper, is, to put it bluntly, that the 20th century did not take place. What took place in those tormented years was a monstrous futile passion, a contingent deviation, the ultimate results (and truth) of which were the Gulag and the Holocaust. The conclusion to be drawn is that attempts to change society for the Good result merely in radical Evil, the only Absolute admitted today. The way to lead our lives is therefore along the path of pragmatic compromise, cynical wisdom, awareness of our limitations, resistance to the temptation of the Absolute. Against this attitude, fidelity to Lenin’s legacy compels us to insist that the 20th century was not just a contingent aberration, but an explosion of emancipatory potential. The true difficulty—and the task of authentic theory—is to link together this explosion and its tragic outcome.

In her attempt to normalize Lenin, to reduce him to one historical figure among many to be dispassionately assessed, Carrère d’Encausse misses Lenin’s real breakthrough, the Event of Lenin, which cannot be reduced to, or accounted for, in terms of tragic historical circumstances—it takes place in another dimension. Carrère d’Encausse’s failure to appreciate this is most evident in her treatment of State and Revolution, where she rehashes the boring argument about Lenin’s oscillation between support for revolutionary spontaneity and recognition of the need for the controlling influence of the party elite. She makes it clear that the Bolsheviks’ “Decree on Peace,” issued immediately after the October Revolution, inaugurated a new politics that bypassed the state: it was addressed not to other states, but directly to the people, to society as a whole. What she fails to recognize is that at the core of State and Revolution is the same vision, of a societal self-organization that bypasses state mechanisms. This puts into perspective the alleged contradiction between Lenin’s elitism (his belief that enlightened professionals should import class consciousness to the working class) and the “undisguised call for spontaneity” in State and Revolution. Not unlike Adorno, who argued that spontaneous enjoyment is the most difficult thing to achieve in modern society, Lenin was fully aware that true spontaneity is very rare: in order to achieve it, one must get rid of false, imposed ideological spontaneity. His position was, therefore: within the realm of the state, a Bolshevik dictatorship; outside it, popular “spontaneity.”

On November 7, 1920, on the third anniversary of the October Revolution, a reenactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace was performed in Petrograd. Tens of thousands of workers, soldiers, students and artists had worked round the clock, living on kasha (tasteless porridge), tea and frozen apples, to prepare the performance, which took place just where the original event had occurred. Their work was coordinated by army officers, as well as avant-garde artists, musicians, and directors, from Malevich to Meyerhold. Although this was theater and not “reality,” the soldiers and sailors who took part played themselves. Many of them had not only participated in 1917, but were, at the time of the performance, fighting in the civil war—Petrograd was under siege in 1920 and suffering from severe food shortages. A contemporary commented: “The future historian will record how, throughout one of the bloodiest and most brutal revolutions, all of Russia was acting”; the Formalist theoretician Viktor Shklovsky noted that “some kind of elemental process is taking place where the living fabric of life is being transformed into the theatrical.” Such performances—particularly in comparison with Stalin’s celebratory Mayday parades—are evidence that the October Revolution was not a simple coup d’état carried out by a small group of Bolsheviks, but an event that unleashed a tremendous emancipatory potential.

Other elements of Lenin’s breakthrough retain their force today: his critique of “Leftism as the Child Illness of Communism,” for example, and his stance against economism. He was aware that political “extremism” or “excessive radicalism” should always be understood as evidence of an ideologico-political displacement, indicating the limitations on what it was possible actually to achieve. The Jacobins’ recourse to the Terror was a hysterical acting out, evidence of their inability to disturb the fundamentals of the economic order (private property, etc). Today’s “excesses” of political correctness similarly reveal an inability to overcome the actual causes of racism and sexism. Perhaps the time has come to question the belief held by many modern leftists that political totalitarianism somehow results from the predominance of material production and technology over human relations and culture. What if the exact opposite is the case? What if political “terror” signals precisely that the sphere of material production has been subordinated to politics? Perhaps, in fact, all political “terror,” from the Jacobins to the Maoist Cultural Revolution, presupposes the displacement of production onto the terrain of political battle.

Lenin’s opposition to economism is crucial today, given the divided views held on economic matters in (what remains of) radical circles: on the one hand, politicians have abandoned the economy as the site of struggle and intervention; on the other, economists, fascinated by the functioning of today’s global economy, preclude any possibility of political intervention. We seem to need Lenin’s insights more than ever: yes, the economy is the key domain—the battle will be decided there; one has to break the spell of global capitalism—but the intervention should be properly political, not economic. Today, when everyone is anticapitalist—even in Hollywood, where several conspiracy movies (from Enemy of the State to The Insider) have recently been produced in which the enemy is the big corporation and its ruthless pursuit of profit—the label has lost its subversive sting.

In the end, the universal appeal to freedom and democracy, the belief that they will save us from the abuses of capitalism, will have to be challenged. Liberal democracy, in truth, is the political arrangement under which capital thrives best. This is Lenin’s ultimate lesson: it is only by throwing off our attachment to liberal democracy, which cannot survive without private property, that we can become effectively anticapitalist. The disintegration of communism in 1990 confirmed the “vulgar” Marxist thesis that the economic base of political democracy is the private ownership of the means of production—that is, capitalism with its attendant class distinctions. The first urge after the introduction of political democracy was privatization, the frantic effort to find—at any price, in whatever way—new owners for the property that had been nationalized when the communists took power: former apparatchiks, mafiosi, whoever, just to get a “base” for democracy. But all this is taking place too late—at exactly the moment when, in the first world postindustrial societies, private ownership has started to lose its central regulating role.

John Berger recently wrote about a French advert for an Internet broker called Selftrade. Under an image of a solid gold hammer and sickle studded with diamonds, the caption reads: “And if the stock market profited everybody?” The strategy is obvious: today, the stock market fulfills the egalitarian communist agenda—everybody can participate in it. Berger proposes a comparison: “Imagine a communications campaign today using an image of a swastika cast in solid gold and embedded with diamonds! It would, of course, not work. Why? The swastika addressed potential victors, not the defeated. It invoked domination not justice.” In contrast, the hammer and sickle invokes the hope that “history would eventually be on the side of those struggling for fraternal justice.” At the very moment this hope is proclaimed dead according to the hegemonic ideology of the “end of ideologies,” a paradigmatic post-industrial enterprise (is there anything more postindustrial than dealing in stocks on the Internet?) mobilizes it once more. The hope continues to haunt us.


Slavoj Žizek, “Seize the Day: Lenin’s Legacy,” London Review of Books 24/14 (July 25, 2005),