Today, Lenin’s political works are being entirely revisited through the canonical opposition between democracy and totalitarian dictatorship. Yet the truth is that this debate has already taken place. For it was equally on the basis of the category of democracy that from 1918 onwards, Western social democrats, lead by Karl Kautsky, attempted to discredit not just the Bolshevik revolution in its historical unfolding, but Lenin’s political thought as such.
What can still be of interest to us here, above all, is Lenin’s theoretical response to this official attack, which was contained in particular in the pamphlet that Kautsky published in Vienna in 1918 under the title The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and to which Lenin responded with his famous text, The Proletarian Revolution and Kautsky the Renegade.
Kautsky, as behoves a declared partisan of the representative and parliamentary political regime, puts almost all the emphasis on the question of the right to vote. What is altogether remarkable is that Lenin regards this procedure as the very essence of Kautsky’s ‘renegation’. Not that Lenin thinks that upholding the right to vote is in any way a theoretical error. On the contrary, Lenin thinks that it can certainly be useful, or even necessary, to participate in elections. He will reiterate this view with violence, against the absolute adversaries of parliamentary vote, in his pamphlet on leftism. What Lenin reproaches Kautsky with is far subtler and more interesting. Had Kautsky said: I oppose the Russian Bolsheviks’ decision to deny the right to vote to reactionaries and exploiters, he would have taken a stance on what Lenin calls an essentially Russian question, and not on the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general. He could then have entitled his pamphlet Against the Bolsheviks. Politically, things would have been clear. But this is not what Kautsky did. Kautsky claimed to intervene on the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general, and of democracy in general. To do this on the grounds of a tactical and localised decision in Russia is the essence of ‘renegation’. The essence of ‘renegation’ is always to argue from a tactical circumstance in order to renege on principles; to start from a secondary contradiction in order to pronounce a revisionist judgement on that conception of politics which defines it as a matter of principles.
Let us look in greater detail at how Lenin proceeds. I quote:
By invoking the right to vote, Kautsky has revealed himself as a polemicist enemy of the Bolsheviks, one who makes litter out of theory. For theory, that is, the study of general class principles of democracy and dictatorship – not just those particular to one nation – must not bear on a special question such as the one of the right to vote, but instead on a general problem: can democracy be maintained for the rich and the exploiters, in the historical period marked by the overthrow of the exploiters and the substitution of their State with the State of the exploited? It is thus, and only thus, that a theorist can pose the question.
Properly speaking, theory is thus what integrates within thought the moment of a question. The moment of the question of democracy is in no way fixed by a local and tactical decision, such as that of the prohibition of the right to vote for the rich and the exploiters, a decision linked in this instance to the particularity of the Russian revolution. This moment is instead fixed by the general principle of victory: we are, Lenin says, in the moment of victorious revolutions, in the moment of the real overthrow of the exploiters. We are no longer in the moment of the Paris commune, a moment of courage and bloody defeat. A theorist is one who approaches questions – of democracy, for example – from within a moment so determined. A renegade is one who takes no account of the moment. One who hangs his political resentment onto a particular episode.
One clearly sees here in what sense Lenin is the political thinker who opens the century. He is the one who makes victory – what is effectively real in a revolutionary politics – into an internal condition of theory. In this way, Lenin fixes what will constitute the main political subjectivity of the century, at least until its last quarter.
So the century, between 1917 and the end of the seventies, is in no way – as today’s liberals claim – the century of ideology, of the imaginary or of utopia. Its subjective determination is a Leninist one. It is the passion for the real, for what is immediately practicable, here and now.
What does the century have to say about itself? In any case, that it is not the century of promise, but that of realisation. It is the century of the act, of the effective, of the absolute present, and not the century of portent, of the to-come. The century experiences itself as the century of victories, after millennia of attempts and failures. The cult of the vain and sublime attempt, bearer of ideological enslavement, is assigned by the actors of the 20th century to the one preceding, to the unhappy Romanticism of the 19th century. The 20th century declares: no more failures, the time of victories has come! This victorious subjectivity outlasts all apparent defeats, because it is not empirical, but constitutive. Victory is the transcendental theme that commands failure itself. ‘Revolution’ is one of the names of this theme. The October Revolution of 1917, and then the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, as well as the victories of the Algerians and the Vietnamese in their wars of national liberation, all of this counts as empirical proof of the theme, and amounts to the defeat of defeats, redressing the massacres of June ’48 or of the Paris Commune.
For Lenin, the means of victory is theoretical and practical lucidity with respect to a decisive confrontation, to a total and final war. Only a total war will lead to a victory that is truly victorious. In this regard the century is the century of war. But this statement intertwines several ideas, all of which turn around the question of the Two, or of antagonistic scission. The century declared that its law was the Two, antagonism; in this sense, the end of the cold war (American imperialism against socialist camp), the last total figure of the Two, also signals the end of the century. Nevertheless, the Two can take on three different guises:
1. There is a central antagonism, two subjectivities organised on a global scale in mortal combat. The century is the stage of this combat.
2. There is an equally violent antagonism between two ways of considering and thinking antagonism. This is the very essence of the confrontation between communism and fascism. For the communists, the planetary confrontation is in the last instance that of classes. For the radical fascisms it is that of nations and races. Here, the Two divides in two. We witness the entanglement of an antagonistic thesis, on the one hand, and of antagonistic theses on antagonism, on the other. This second division is essential, perhaps more than the first. All in all, there were more anti-fascists than communists, and it is characteristic that the second world war was fought in accordance with this derivative split, and not on the basis of a unified conception of antagonism, which only gave rise to a cold war, save on the periphery (Korean and Vietnam wars).
3. The century is summoned as the century of the production, through war, of a definitive unity. Antagonism is to be overcome by the victory of one camp over the other. Thus one can also say that, in this sense, the century of the Two is animated by the radical desire of the One. What names the articulation of antagonism with the violence of the One is victory, as attestation of the real.
Let us note that we are not dealing with a dialectical scheme. Nothing allows one to foresee a synthesis, an internal overcoming of contradiction. On the contrary, everything points to the suppression of one of the terms. The century is a figure of the non-dialectical juxtaposition of the Two and the One. The question here is to know what is the century’s assessment of dialectical thought. In the victorious result, is the motor antagonism itself or the desire of the One? This is one of the main philosophical questions of Leninism. It revolves around what one must understand in dialectical thought by the unity of opposites. Without doubt, it is the question that Mao and the Chinese communists worked on most assiduously.
Around 1965 there begins in China what the local press, always inventive when it came to the designation of conflicts, calls a great class struggle in the field of philosophy. This struggle opposes, on the one side, those who think that the essence of dialectics is the synthesis of contradictory terms, and that it is given in the formula one divides into two, and, on the other side, those who think that the essence of dialectics is the synthesis of contradictory terms, and that the right formula is consequently two fuse into one. Apparent scholasticism, essential truth. For this is in fact a question of the identification of revolutionary subjectivity, of its constitutive desire. Is it the desire of division, of war, or is it instead the desire of fusion, of unity, of peace? In any case, in the China of the time those who hold to the maxim ‘one divides into two’ are declared leftists, and rightists those who advocate ‘two fuse into one’. Why?
If the maxim of synthesis (two fuse into one) taken as a subjective formula, as desire of the One, is rightist, it is because in the eyes of the Chinese revolutionaries it is altogether premature. The subject of this maxim is yet to fully traverse the Two to the end, it does not yet know what an integrally victorious class war is. It follows that the One whose desire it harbours is not yet even thinkable, which means that under the cover of synthesis, this desire is calling for the old One. This interpretation of dialectics entails a restoration. In order to not be a conservative, in order to be a revolutionary activist in the present, one must instead desire division. The question of novelty immediately becomes that of the creative scission within the singularity of the situation.
In China the Cultural Revolution opposes, singularly during the years ’66 and ’67, and in the midst of unimaginable fury and confusion, the partisans of these two versions of the dialectical schema. There are those who behind Mao, at the time practically in a minority within the direction of the Party, think that the socialist State must not be the policed and police-like end of mass politics, but, on the contrary, that it must act as a stimulus for the outburst of politics, under the sign of the march towards real communism. And there are those who, behind Liu Shaoqi, but especially Deng Xiaoping, think that, economic management being the principal aspect of things, popular mobilisations are more nefarious than necessary. The educated youth will be the spearhead of the Maoist line. The Party cadres and a great number of the intellectuals will undertake more or less overt opposition. The farmers will cautiously bide their time. The workers – the decisive force – will be so torn between rival organisations that in the end, from ’67-’68, it will prove necessary, with the State at risk of being carried away by the political flood, for the Army to intervene. There begins a long period of extremely violent and complex bureaucratic confrontations, not without a number of popular irruptions, all the way up to the death of Mao (1976), swiftly followed by the Thermidorian coup that brings Deng to power.
This political hurricane is, as far as its stakes, so novel and at the same time so obscure, that numerous lessons that it doubtless entails for the future of the politics of emancipation have yet to be drawn, in spite of the fact that it provided a decisive inspiration for French Maoism between 1967 and 1975, the only innovative and consequent political current of post-May ’68. In any case, it is beyond doubt that the Cultural Revolution signals the closure of an entire sequence, whose central object is the Party, and whose main political concept is that of proletariat.
Let it be said in passing that it is fashionable today, among the restorers of imperial and capitalist servility, to qualify this unprecedented episode as a bloody and feral power struggle, in which Mao, a minority in the Chinese Politburo, attempted by any available means to climb his way back to the top. First of all, one will reply that to qualify a political episode of this type with the epithet of power struggle is to attract ridicule by breaking down a wide-open door. The militants of the Cultural Revolution never stopped quoting Lenin’s declaration (perhaps not his best, but that’s another matter) that, ultimately, the problem is that of power. Mao’s threatened position was one of the explicit stakes of the conflict, as Mao himself officially indicated. The findings of our sinologist interpreters are nothing but immanent and public themes of the quasi-civil war that took place in China between ’65 and ’76, a war whose properly revolutionary sequence (in the sense of the existence of new political thought) is to be found only the initial segment (’65-’68). Besides, since when do our political philosophers consider it a horror that a threatened leader might attempt to regain influence? Is this not what they discuss all day long as constituting the delectable and democratic essence of parliamentary politics? One will then argue that the meaning and importance of a power struggle is judged according to the stakes involved. Especially when the weapons in this struggle are classically revolutionary, in the sense that lead Mao to remark that the revolution is not a gala dinner: unprecedented mobilisation of millions of workers and youths, a truly unheard of freedom of expression and organisation, gigantic demonstrations, political assemblies in all places of work or study, brutal and schematic debates, public denunciations, the recurrent and anarchic use of violence, including armed violence, etc. Now, who can argue today that Deng Xiaoping, qualified by the activists of the Cultural Revolution as second highest amongst the officials who, whilst members of the Party, were nevertheless committed to the capitalist path, was not in fact on a line of development and social construction that was diametrically opposed to Mao’s innovative and collectivist one? Did we not see, when after Mao’s death he seized power in a bureaucratic coup d’État, how Deng unfurled, during the whole of the eighties and up to his death, a completely savage and completely corrupt sort of neo-capitalism, all the more illegitimate as it maintained the Party’s despotism? Thus there really was, with respect to all of these questions, and singularly regarding the most important of all (relations between town and country, between intellectual work and manual work, between the Party and the masses, etc.), what the Chinese in their delightful tongue call a struggle between two classes, two ways and two lines.
But the acts of violence, often so extreme? The hundreds of thousands of dead? The persecutions, especially against intellectuals? One will say the same thing about them as about all the acts of violence that have marked the history, to this very day, of any expansive attempts to practice a free politics. The radical subversion of the eternal order that subjects society to wealth and to the wealthy, to power and to the powerful, to science and to scientists, to capital and to its servants, cannot be sweet, progressive and peaceful. There is already a great and rigorous violence of thought when you cease to tolerate that one counts what the people think for nothing, for nothing the collective intelligence of workers, for nothing, to say the truth, any thought that is not homogenous to the order in which the hideous reign of profit is perpetuated. The theme of total emancipation, practiced in the present, in the enthusiasm of the absolute present, is always situated beyond Good and Evil, because, in the circumstances of action, the only known Good is what the status quo establishes as the precious name of its own subsistence. Extreme violence is therefore reciprocal to extreme enthusiasm, because it is in effect, to speak like Nietzsche, a matter of the transvaluation of all values. The Leninist passion for the real, which is also the passion of thought, is without morality. The only status of morality, as Nietzsche saw, is genealogical. It is a residue of the old world. Thus, for a Leninist, the threshold of tolerance to what, seen from our old and pacified present, is the worst, is incredibly high, regardless of the camp that one belongs to. This is obviously what causes some today to speak of the barbarity of the century. Nevertheless, it is altogether unjust to isolate this dimension of the passion for the real. Even when it is a question of the persecution of intellectuals, as disastrous as its spectacle and effects may be, it is important to recall that what makes it possible is that it is not the privileges of knowledge that command the political access to the real. Like Fouquier-Tinville said during the French Revolution, when judging and condemning to death Lavoisier, the creator of modern chemistry: The Republic does not need scientists. Barbarous words if there ever were, totally extremist and unreasonable, but that must be understood, beyond themselves, in their abridged, axiomatic form: The Republic does not need. It is not from need, from interest, or from its correlate, privileged knowledge, that derives the political capture of a fragment of the real, but from the occurrence of a collectivisable thought, and from it alone. This can also be stated as follows: politics, when it exists, grounds its own principle regarding the real, and thus is in need of nothing, save for itself.
But perhaps it is the case that today every attempt to submit thought to the ordeal of the real, political or otherwise, is regarded as barbarous. The passion for the real, much cooled, cedes its place (provisionally?) to the acceptance, sometimes joyous, sometimes dismal, of reality.
Of course, the passion for the real is accompanied by a proliferation of semblance. For a revolutionary, the world is the old world, it is replete with corruption and treachery. The purification, the divestment of the real, must always begin again.
What must be emphasized is that to purify the real means to extract it from the reality that envelops and occults it. Whence the violent taste for surface and transparency. The century attempts to react against depth. It carries out a fierce critique of foundations and of the beyond, it promotes the immediate and the surface of sensation. It proposes, as heir to Nietzsche, to abandon all other-worlds, and to pose that the real is identical to appearance. Thought, precisely because what drives it is not the ideal but the real, must seize hold of appearance as appearance, or of the real as pure event of its own appearance. To achieve this, it must destroy every density, every claim to substantiality, every assertion of reality. It is reality that acts as an obstacle to the discovery of the real as pure surface. Here lies the struggle against semblance. But since the semblance-of-reality adheres to the real, the destruction of semblance comes to be identified with destruction pure and simple. At the end of its purification, the real, as total absence of reality, is the nothing. This path, undertaken by innumerable ventures in the century – political, artistic, scientific ventures – is the path of terrorist nihilism. Since its subjective motivation is the passion for the real, it is not a consent to anything, it is a creation, and one should recognise in it the traits of an active nihilism.
Where are we today? The figure of active nihilism is regarded as completely obsolete. Every reasonable activity is limited, limiting, constrained by the burdens of reality. The best that one can do is to get away from evil, and to do this, the shortest path is to avoid any contact with the real. Ultimately one comes up against the nothing, the there-is-nothing-real, and in this sense one remains in nihilism. But since the terrorist element, the desire to purify the real, has been suppressed, nihilism is disactivated. It has become passive, or reactive, nihilism, that is, hostile to every action as well as to every thought.
The other path that the century sketched out, the one that attempts to hold onto the passion for the real without falling for the paroxystic charms of terror, I call the subtractive path: to exhibit as a real point, not the destruction of reality, but minimal difference. To purify reality, not in order to annihilate it in its surface, but to subtract it from its apparent unity so as to detect within it the minuscule difference, the vanishing term which constitutes it. What barely takes place differs from the place wherein it takes place. It is in the ‘barely’ that all the affect rests, in this immanent exception.
In both of these paths the key question is that of the new. What is the new? The question obsesses the century, because ever since its inception the century is invoked as figure of commencement. And first of all as the (re)commencement of Man: the new man.
This syntagm, perhaps more Stalinist than Leninist, has two opposing senses.
- For a whole host of thinkers, singularly in the ambit of fascist thought, and without excluding Heidegger, the new man is in great part the restitution of the man of old, the one who had been obliterated, who had disappeared, who had been corrupted. Purification is really the more or less violent process of the return of a vanished origin. The new is a production of authenticity. In the final analysis, the task of the century is seen here as the restitution (of the origin) by the destruction (of the inauthentic).
- For another host of thinkers, particularly in the ambit of Marx-leaning communism, the new man is a real creation, something which has never existed before, because it emerges from the destruction of historical antagonisms. The new man of communism is beyond classes and beyond the State.
The new man is thus either restored, or produced.
In the first case, the definition of the new man is rooted in mythic totalities such as race, nation, earth, blood, soil. The new man is a collection of predicates (nordic, aryan, warrior, etc.).
In the second case, on the contrary, the new man is conceived against all envelopes and all predicates, in particular against family, property, the nation-state. This is the project of Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Marx had already underlined that the universal singularity of the proletariat is to bear no predicate, to possess nothing, and in particular to have, in the strong sense, no fatherland. This conception of the new man – anti-predicative, negative and universal – traverses the century. A very important point here is the hostility towards the family, as the primordial nucleus of egoism, of rooted particularity, of tradition and origin. Gide’s cry – ‘Families, I hate you’ – partakes in the apologetics of the new man thus conceived.
It is very striking to see that the family has once again become, at the century’s end, a consensual and practically unassailable value. The young love the family, in which moreover they remain until later and later. The German Green Party, considered to be a protest party (everything is relative: it is now in government. . .), contemplated at one point calling itself the party of the family. Even homosexuals, bearers in the century, as we’ve just seen with Gide, of a part of the protest, today demand their insertion within the familial frame, the tradition, citizenship. See how far we’ve come! The new man, in the real present of the century, stood first of all, if one was progressive, for the escape from family, property and state despotism. Today, it seems that modernisation, as our masters like to call it, amounts to being a good little dad, a good little mom, a good little son, to become an efficient employee, to enrich oneself as much as possible, and to play the responsible citizen. This is the new motto: Money, Family, Elections. Even if the money is that of the net-economy, the family that of two homosexuals, the elections a great democratic feast, I can’t really see the political progress.
The century ends on the motif of impossible subjective novelty and of the comfort of repetition. This motif has a categorial name, obsession. The century ends in the obsession of security, under the rather abject maxim: it’s really not bad being where you are already, there is, and has been, worse elsewhere. Whilst what was alive in these hundred years placed itself, after Freud as after Lenin, under the sign of a devastating hysteria, of its activism, of its intransigent militancy.
Our duty, supporting ourselves on Lenin’s work, is to reactivate in politics, against the morose obsession of our times, the very question of thought. To all those who claim to practice political philosophy, we ask: What is your critique of the existing world? What can you offer us that’s new? Of what are you the creator?
1. A version of this text, dated April 7, 1999, and originally delivered in a series of lectures at the Collège International de Philosophie, will appear in Alain Badiou’s forthcoming The Century, in a bilingual edition with translation and commentary by Alberto Toscano and responses by Alain Badiou.
Translated by Alberto Toscano