Thirty-Three Lessons on Lenin
Antonio Negri Translated by G. Neal McTighe and Matt Harper
Forthcoming with Columbia University Press (Insurrection Series)
Lenin and Our Generation
1. Toward a Marxist Reading of Lenin’s Marxism
This year, in three groups of lessons, along with a few interludes and appendices, we aim to arrive at an understanding of Vladimir Lenin, though without suggesting that it is possible to arrive at any sort of conclusive reading. Primarily, we compare problems that are born from Leninism with issues that arise out of today’s workers’ movement. These three groups of lessons are: first, an introduction that centers on the fundamentals of Lenin’s thought. We will follow how problems in Lenin’s political theory are developed, comparing them with how it is that we, today, handle similar problems. The second and more-focused group of lessons will instead center around the concept of organization, particularly Lenin’s thoughts about the Russian Communist Party. The third and last group puts forth, once again, the essential idea of the extinction of the State starting with, on the one hand, Lenin’s work, State and Revolution, and, on the other, the actual current condition of the class struggle and the development of the workforce’s many branches. Therefore, we have three groups of lessons and three groups of problems, which are supplemented by notes and appendices (e.g., on the dialectics of Lenin, on the Soviets, and on Extremism); three groups of lessons that are unequal in content and disproportionate in importance. Yet the desire both to think about and do that comes from reading Lenin is so strong and compelling that I believe we shall derive great benefits from this exercise.
Let us begin, therefore, with the first point: Lenin and ourselves, Lenin and the political experience of the movement today. Let us ask ourselves, what contribution has Leninism made to our theoretical and political formation? This question calls for a comparison and, as is the case with all comparisons, requires us to make a value judgment, one that may be posed in radical terms: if Lenin is still able to serve a purpose for us today, if Leninism is such that it still has value, or better, if it corresponds in some way to the modes of research and action at the heart of the class struggle; modes that we have, often spontaneously, renovated and rediscovered. Note that I say “spontaneously” not because spontaneity is our religion, but because no one in the 1950s and 1960s ever taught us the significance of class struggle. In order to respond to these questions it is necessary to trace the entire development of Leninist thought, highlighting its key points, which are: first, an analysis of capital; second, an understanding of organization; third, knowledge of the struggle against autocracy and therefore an organic understanding of the definition of the process of revolution; fourth, an understanding of insurrection; and fifth, knowledge of how socialism is constructed once the proletariat has acquired power. It will be necessary to follow this line of thinking, granting special attention not only to content but equally to the relationship between strategy and tactics, which seems the most distinctive element in Lenin’s thought. With regard to Marx, class struggle and the rise of the workforce assign a very high value (in Lenin’s thought) to the tactical moment—which is a complete enrichment of Marxist thought. Certainly, Marx’s writings on the Commune are also an example of the intellectual merit of concrete history, an example of the capacity to seize the insurrectional moment and to develop from this a theoretical vantage point. But it is also true that for Lenin, as Mario Tronti observes in his Workers and Capital, the relationship between the theory and the practice of revolution, between the intellectual creation of a strategy and the perseverance to carry it out tactically, and above all the novel use of organizational mediation, provides a fresh, visible prominence to the entire communist position.
Let us start with a purely introductory discussion—how to read Lenin today. In doing so we shall leave aside the various critical perspectives on the matter, for they are of no importance to the official communist movement. Dogmatic temptation and opportunism are undoubtedly diversely articulated and balanced in the interpretation of Lenin that we have come to know and have specifically noted during the latest phase of theoretical development in the communist movement. Lenin has come to be the one who has said it all. The one who has sung the praises of insurrection . . . but it is also Lenin who wrote Extremism, an Infantile Disorder: a gold mine of sayings and counter-sayings in which theory takes place even in the small space between two lines. However, in actuality, beyond dogmatic temptation and opportunism, it is true that Lenin’s thought presents a number of formal contradictions that often have considerable relevance. In knowing this, the problem for us is to understand if and to what degree Lenin’s thought might be subjected to a Marxist analysis of Marxism itself. What does this mean? It means that, in principle, Marxist authors are placed under an historical, practice-based analysis that is fundamental in order to both understand and situate their thought. With respect to his own works, Marx himself provided a number of examples of this type of Marxist science of Marxism; that is, the capacity to situate the variations and the necessary discontinuities of political analysis within a coherent structural plan. This takes place, for example, in Lenin’s writing on the Commune, wherein the original opposition to an in-depth study of the insurrectional process is able to quickly transform itself into a self-analysis, all the while participating in the process of insurrection itself. Thought is discontinuous because reality is dialectical and the movement is revolutionary and progressive.
All the same, the revolution is thoroughgoing. It still is on its passage through purgatory. It does its work methodically: Down to December 2, 1851, it had fulfilled one-half of its program, it now fulfills the other half. It first ripens the power of the Legislature into fullest maturity in order to be able to overthrow it. Now that it has accomplished that, the revolution proceeds to ripen the power of the Executive into equal maturity; it reduces this power to its purest expression; isolates it; places it before itself as the sole subject for reproof in order to concentrate against it all the revolutionary forces of destruction. When the revolution shall have accomplished this second part of its preliminary program, Europe will jump up from her seat to exclaim: “Well hast thou Grubbed, old mole!”
In more general terms, what this means is that one of the most salient aspects of Marxist discourse on Marxism is the assumption of its own essential discontinuity and the discontinuity of its own real referent. It is only when Marxist thought presents itself as an ideology that it displays a false internal continuity, an internal sense of derivation, a prehistory. But that is not the case: Marxist thought is only able to address the series of problems that repeatedly renew themselves; the ruling continuity cannot be other than that revolutionary subject, both dynamic and contradictory, to which it refers. Marxism is the actual continuity of a subject that itself proposes subversion as the essence of its continuity: it is only under these conditions that Marxist theory achieves material power [potenza]. From this point on, Marxism’s discontinuity acts as a negation of ideology: never a simple theoretical continuity, never a derivation, never a linear process wherein thought incites thought; it is instead always a rupture and renovation of political hypotheses regarding necessity, requirements, and new qualifications that the revolutionary subject presents. Any reading or criticism of a Marxist writer cannot be anything but praise of real discontinuity acting as the only systematic and continuous point of reference to Marxism.
Therefore, if we place Lenin under analysis, the first and greatest danger is that of entering into a discussion on “Leninism.” Leninism doesn’t exist, or better yet, the theoretical affirmations contained in this term must be brought back to the series of behaviors and attitudes to which they refer: their correctness must be measured in the relationship between the emergence of a historical subject (the proletarian revolution) and a series of subversive problems that this subject has at times in front of itself. Is this an overly drastic reduction of the historical depth of Lenin’s thought? I do not believe so, for there are valid reservations with regard to this topic. As a confirmation and example, I would like to use the discussion that Lukács, in his article from 1924, proposes about Lenin. Lukács asks himself: Who is Lenin? He begins to answer with this line of reasoning:
Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution. It is so because its essence is an intellectual synthesis of the social existence which produces and fundamentally determines the proletariat; and because the proletariat struggling for liberation finds its clear self-consciousness in it. The stature of a proletarian thinker, of a representative of historical materialism, can therefore be measured by the depth and breadth of his grasp of this and the problems arising from it; by the extent to which he is able accurately to detect beneath the appearances of bourgeois society those tendencies towards proletarian revolution which work themselves in and through it to their effective being and distinct consciousness.
Historical materialism—that is, the ideas of the theorists of historical materialism—must therefore be measured within a determined existence of class, in its presence, exactly as in its tendency. Now, Lenin is this: he is the fullest representation of that which Lukács calls the “actuality of the revolution.”
However, there are today only few who know that Lenin did for our time what Marx did for the whole of capitalist development. In the problems of the development of modern Russia—from those of the beginnings of capitalism in a semi-feudal absolutist state to those of establishing socialism in a backward peasant country—Lenin always saw the problems of the age as a whole: the onset of the last phase of capitalism and the possibilities of turning the now inevitable final struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat in favor of the proletariat—of human salvation.
Lenin is the actuality of the revolution. Lenin interprets—within the definite situation, within the definite relationship of class between a historical subject (the Russian proletariat) and the overall capitalistic power [potere] structure placed before him—the entire series of problems that the worldwide proletariat faced in that historical moment. In a Marxist sense, the abstract becomes concrete, that is, the sum of all real definitions. The Leninist solution to the problem of the revolution in Russia is not, therefore, a solution that is simply connected to the definition of the relationship (between the revolutionary Russian proletariat and the semi-feudal condition of the relationships of production and control). But as much as it is such, and only in as much as it is such, it is also the solution to an overarching problem: analysis, interpretation, and practical solution determined by a relationship of class and overall contribution, general to the construction of the revolutionary project for all situations, in the given epoch. The passage toward the last phase of capitalism is the possibility of turning the struggle (“the fatal moment of this nation”) between autocracy and proletariat in favor of the proletariat—of salvation for all humanity.
I believe that this Lukácsian position is correct and profoundly Leninist. In reality (as we shall see in future conversations discussing Leninist texts on the subject) this sense of exactness, of concreteness of the situation that we have before us, this application of Marxist science as the choice of a defined relationship, formed upon defined relationships of force, constitutes the fundamental reduction that Lenin performs and imposes upon the Marxist science of that period; winning this theoretical battle resulted precisely in the construction of the Bolshevik party and determined the October Revolution. And so we see that the choice of a specific relationship of force between the working class and capital in a certain historical moment and, consequently, the choice of organization (inasmuch as awareness of this relationship and of the series of nexus and articulations that begin with and point to this relationship) form the basis of the reversal of political praxis. This choice of the organization as subject and the overturning of praxis is a sectarian choice. In particular, it is a point of view that is not put forward simply to define the relationship that from time to time spans working class and capitalist force, but that simultaneously desires the capacity to distort the relationship upon which it is constructed, to identify in every moment the possibility of putting the adversary in crisis, to bring to ruin its instruments of control, the possibility of setting in motion the violent destruction of these mechanisms. The theory is articulated in an absolutely precise manner with the capacity to exercise violence. Violence is the fabric upon which all political relations are constructed. The State’s dominion is that of the control of violence, of legality, of all constitutional forms—the normal forms of capitalist command are purely and simply violence. Marxism is the discovery that violence lives not simply in formal actions, but in everyday actions of production and life; it is the discovery that the science of capital is the science of capitalistic violence, it is one of the ways in which capital organizes its violence upon its subordinates. Marxism, therefore, is destruction and overthrow. Returning this relationship between knowledge and violence directly into the analysis of class represents the sectarian point of view, the viewpoint of the working class, the point of view of Marxist theory.
From this point of view we must immediately declare as unsatisfactory several other trends in Marxist theory that attempt to expunge the definition of the proletariat subject from their analyses. Louis Althusser’s position is typical in this regard, which, in the same measure, tends to define theory as a practice of intervention and a taking of a position of class, insistently refuses to ascribe these activities to a material subject, characterized by an internal dialectic between subjectivity and material discontinuity, between the various elements that compose it. The science of the revolutionary process refuses here to become the science of the revolutionary subject. It is easy to understand the effects on this concept: exalt the reflection and the mediation (from time to time either by the intellectual or by the party) against the dialectical immediacy, and therefore against concreteness (understood in a Marxist sense) of the revolutionary subject. But how can this concept presume to be Marxist and especially Leninist when in Lenin—as we began to see and as analysis will make clearer—the fundamental problem is that of the definition of the revolutionary subject and of its temporal and spatial constitution? It becomes clear that establishing the party is quite different from dreaming about it!
Antonio Negri is widely considered to be one of the greatest living political philosophers. Negri lives in Italy.
G. Neal McTighe is based with Duke University Press and Matt Harper is based with Loyola College Maryland