Neil Harding’s great 2-volume work, Lenin’s Political Thought, may be a little flat at times, especially when it comes to the intricacies of the dialectic in Lenin’s hands. Yet his ability to deploy earthy images is of the same calibre as Lenin’s:

The revolution was not like a plum falling into the hand when fully ripe without so much as a shake of the tree. It was, to characterise Lenin’s account, more like a turnip. It would swell and ripen in the ground but would take a stout pull to harvest it—otherwise the action of the elements and of parasites would combine to rot it away (Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, vol. 2, p. 73)

Can you tell I’m doing the proof corrections for Lenin, Religion, and Theology? Good news: the cover is out too:

Lenin, Religion, and Theology

Last week at the garage blackboard lectures, I was asked a simple question: what is a successful revolution?

I had been talking about Marxism and theology, and mentioned that the Russian Revolution was the first successful communist revolution. But what is the answer to that question? At a minimal level, it is a revolution that has been able to withstand and defeat the counter-revolution (inevitably heavily supported by international capital, as with the ‘civil’ war in Russia). When it has done so, it can gain some precious space to begin the process of constructing socialism.

That was the answer I gave then. But I suggest there is another part to the answer: a successful revolution provides inspiration for other revolutionary movements. Let me give one example, from the 1930s in China and the sheer inspirational power of the Russian Revolution among Chinese communists.

America, England, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, and other capitalist or imperialist powers had sent thousands of political, cultural, economic, or missionary workers into China, actively to propagandize the Chinese masses with credos of their own states. Yet for many years the Russians had not had a single school, church, or even debating society in China where Marxist-Leninist doctrines could legally be preached. Their influence, except in the soviet districts, had been largely indirect. Moreover, it had been aggressively opposed everywhere by the Kuomintang. Yet few who had been in China during that decade, and conscious of the society in which they lived, would dispute the contention that Marxism, the Russian Revolution, and the new society of the Soviet Union had probably made more profound impressions on the Chinese people than all Christian missionary influences combined (Edgar Snow, RSOC, 352-53).

To follow on from the previous post and since I am copyediting my big Lenin book, a discussion of the role of reform:

One might expect that Lenin would opt clearly for revolution over against reform, for an abolition of the current system over against tinkering with it in order to make life more bearable. A selective reading of Lenin’s texts can give this impression. Reform is thereby described as a “tinkering with washbasins” (characteristic of the Zemstvos), that is, introducing reliable water supply, electric trains, lighting, and other “developments” that do not threaten the foundations of the “existing social system” (CW 10: 189; LPSS 12: 263). Such reform may therefore be seen as a response by the bourgeoisie to the strength of the working class, attempting to steer the workers away from revolution by emphasizing reform. Even more, reformism is “bourgeois deception of the workers,” who will always remain wage-slaves as long as capital dominates: “The liberal bourgeoisie grant reforms with one hand, and with the other always take them back, reduce them to nought, use them to enslave the workers, to divide them into separate groups and perpetuate wage-slavery” (CW 19: 372; LPSS 24: 1). In other words, reform is a bourgeois weapon designed to weaken the working class. Yet, should the foundations of the system be threatened, when the proletariat begins its own onslaught of that system, all the various dimensions of “tinkering with washbasins” will be abolished before we can slip out a fart.

It follows that those socialists who see the prime task at hand to be reform miss the elephant in the room, for they wish to alleviate the conditions under which they work and do not realize that the problem lies in those conditions themselves (CW 5: 387; LPSS 6: 42; CW 10: 378–80; LPSS 13: 62–64). As Lenin observes in relation to debates, especially with the Mensheviks, over voting in the Duma elections, the danger is not whether some conservative party or other will win the elections, by fair means or foul, but in the very elections themselves: the danger “is manifested not in the voting, but in the definition of the conditions of voting” (CW 11: 459; LPSS 14: 277–78). One should never rest with what is given, but work to change that given. And the reason is that by fighting on the ground chosen by the enemy, reformists strengthen the power of their enemy.

What, then, is the function of reform? Is it to be dismissed entirely as a bourgeois deception and as a socialist compromise with the status quo? Contrary to initial impressions, Lenin does see a clear role for reform. In a daring formulation that is based on revolutionary experience, he argues that the opposition of revolution and reform is itself false. One cannot have either one or the other; instead, the condition for reform is revolution itself. Without any revolutionary agitation, reform would simply not exist: “either revolutionary class struggle, of which reforms are always a by-product … or no reforms at all” (CW 23: 213; LPSS 30: 282). In this light, reforms may be understood as temporary reconciliation with a partial victory or even failure in which the old system has been shaken but has not yet collapsed (CW 11: 30-31; LPSS 13: 221). More importantly, reform becomes a central feature of revolutionary agitation, a means of raising the consciousness of workers and peasants, a way of both alleviating conditions in the intermediate period and of pointing out that those conditions are the problem. In this way, workers will see through the false promises of reformism and utilize reforms to strengthen their class struggle. Or, to put it simply, as Lenin recommends to public speakers and the Social-Democratic Duma representatives, “five minutes of every half-hour speech are devoted to reforms and twenty-five minutes to the coming revolution” (CW 23: 159; LPSS 30: 221).

A new post on some rather attractive features of transcendence on the Political Theology blog.

A couple of days I ago I had a thoroughly enjoyable, comradely and fiery discussion with a militant icon of the Left in Australia, the 70-something Carole Ferrier. In reply to her accusation that I am a pseudo-Marxist, I told her she was full of old-fashioned, economist and crude understandings of religion. I guess there are still those who feel that religion is simply an obfuscation, a mystification used by the ruling class to further its exploitation (in short, Althusser’s ‘cynical priests’).  Pity really. But it also struck me that many Marxists are perfectly happy being in opposition. Any successful revolution – of which there are many – is simply a betrayal of the ideal, romanticised revolution that never comes. This is of course a position particularly endemic among Trotskyites, even though Trotsky himself (as Lunacharsky noted) always acted with one eye on the mirror of history. Here Lenin’s criticism of the various Mensheviks, liberals and assorted others is worth remembering: ‘Away, away! Let this cup of revolutionary-democratic dictatorship pass from me!’ (Collected Works, vol. 8, p. 288).

Of course, on saying farewell, I gave a Carole a hug and said ‘Keep the faith!’ She growled and said, ‘I ain’t got no f&@kin’ faith’. Love her all the same.

At the forefront of all serious revolutions in history is the simple slogan: cancel the debts and redistribute the land. As a result, one of the first acts after a revolution is to destroy tax and debtor records, as well as land contracts.

Why? Debt involves not the generous offer of support from a creditor to a lender, but the net flow of wealth and power to the creditor. The current situation in Europe is but the latest example of this pattern of exploitation. Thus, any serious revolution destroys the pattern.

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Just in time for Christmas: another ‘Letter from the Road’ over at Political Theology, this time on Lenin and miracles. A further snippet from the draft of Lenin and Theology.

Today we found this, a revolutionary eye-chart:

It is at the moment housed in a little dacha (дача) – the Germans need a ‘t’ to help them pronounce the thing:

Close by the corner of Karl-Marx Allee (which used to be called Stalinallee ) and Strasse der Pariser Kommune:

But one one should trying to read the eye-chart after imbibing the somewhat interesting brews found on the premises:

Following on from my earlier post in which Lenin points out that ‘a revolution is a miracle‘, a few of his more juicy statements on the same line.

After the 1905 revolution:

Revolutions are the locomotives of history, said Marx. Revolutions are the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited. At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by the narrow, philistine scale of gradual progress (1905, Collected Works, vol. 9, p. 113).

And then in the famous ‘Letters from Afar’ after the February Revolution of 1917, in which the tsar was overthrown:

The slogan, the “task of the day”, at this moment must be: Workers, you have performed miracles of proletarian heroism, the heroism of the people, in thecivil war against tsarism. You must perform miracles of organisation, organisation of the proletariat and of the whole people, to prepare the way for your victory in the second stage of the revolution (1917, Collected Works, vol. 23, pp. 306-7).

Comrade workers! You performed miracles of proletarian heroism yesterday in overthrowing the tsarist monarchy. In the more or less near future (perhaps even now, as these lines are being written) you will again have to perform the same miracles of heroism to overthrow the rule of the land lords and capitalists, who are waging the imperialist war. You will not achieve durable victory in this next “real” revolution if you do not perform miracles of proletarian organisation! (1917, Collected Works, vol. 23, p. 323).

After the October Revolution and in the face of almost insuperable difficulties:

It is indeed a miracle. Workers, who have suffered unprecedented torments of hunger, cold, economic ruin and devastation, are not only maintaining their cheerful spirit, their entire devotion to Soviet power, all the energy of self-sacrifice and heroism, but also, despite their lack of training and experience, are undertaking the burden of steering the ship of state! And this at a moment when the storm has reached the peak of its fury … The history of our proletarian revolution is full of such miracles (1919, Collected Works, vol. 13, pp. 72-3).

After two years of furious and vicious ‘civil’ war:

The question that primarily comes to mind is: how was it possible for such a miracle to have occurred, for Soviet power to have held out for two years in a backward, mined and war-weary country, in the face of the stubborn struggle waged against it first by German imperialism, which at that time was considered omnipotent, and then by Entente imperialism, which a year ago settled accounts with Germany, had no rivals and lorded it over all the countries on earth? From the point of view of a simple calculation of the forces involved, from the point of view of a military assessment of these forces, it really is a miracle (1919, Collected Works, vol. 19, p. 208).

Finally, when the Red Army was victorious after four years of foreign intervention, blockade and civil war:

Four years have enabled us to work a miracle without parallel, in that a starving, weak and half-ruined country has defeated its enemies – the mighty capitalist countries (1921, Collected Works, vol. 33, p. 117).

To make sure that no-one is excluded from the miraculous, even the water transport workers are capable of miracles in the subsequent task of economic reconstruction:

That is why, comrades, I will conclude my speech by expressing the hope and certainty that you will devote the greatest attention to the tasks of the forthcoming navigation season, and will make it your aim, and will stop at no sacrifice, to create real, iron, military discipline and to perform in the sphere of water transport miracles as great as those performed during the past two years by our Red Army (1920, Collected Works, vol. 30, p. 432).