Two, three, many Lenins

Ian Parker encountered over a hundred Lenins a hundred years after he died in this very useful book.

 

The book, edited by Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichorn and Patrick Anderson, has an unsettling title “Lenin: The Heritage We (Don’t) Renounce,” which basically boils down to an affirmation of Lenin against all those who would want to denounce him, whether that is outright reactionaries who have never actually read him to former revolutionaries who now conveniently disown him. Over a hundred authors from (nearly) every corner of the world pit themselves against mis-readings and misunderstandings of Lenin in short essays, most of which are bite-sized and some of which are more difficult to digest.

Commemoration

When Lenin died in 1924 he was mummified and put on display in Moscow, bits of his body replaced over the years so that barely any of the original Lenin is left. He objected to this idea before he died, in fact, Lenin also opposed the project of producing a “collected work”, believing there was no point in collating obscure writings from the past. Since then, “Leninists” of different stripes have been scrabbling over the remains of his work, work which, when published in his lifetime was censored by the very Stalinist apparatus that he warned about. There are quite a range of those interpreters of Lenin in this book, those who venerate him and tie that veneration to some quite horrible bureaucratic regimes that are actually the antithesis of what he tried to build after 1917. The quasi-religious veneration doesn’t do him any favours, still less those who want to put him into practice today.

We are reminded that there were offerings place by his coffin, and afterwards nearly 2,000 different objects – ranging from flowers to books to statues – were photographed and catalogued. There is a danger, of course, that the little chapters in this book will function in this kind of way, reminders of the way that Marxism in the Soviet Union and other “workers’ states” was turned into a belief system rather than a guide to action.

There are some off-the-wall quasi-Stalinist Lenins in this book, formulations that try to press him into some kind of weird justification for some old and some existing regimes, including Maoist and even Putinite distortions of history, and there are some very sound revolutionary Marxist discussions of theoretical issues and practical political questions, and, between those two – those that are dead wrong (but need to be read and grappled with, argued with) and those who do want to bring him alive again (and you will find some of our comrades at work in this book) – there are a range of innovative readings, illuminating, surprising.

Dialectical intersectional Lenins

What comes through in this book is at least two reminders of what is important about Lenin. One is that there is no one fixed “Leninist” position about anything. He changed his mind, argued with those who turned his ideas into dogma, and was engaged in continual critical reflection on what was to be done. As the political context changed, so he was forced to reassess his analysis and to shift political position. The other reminder is that there are multiple ways of connecting with Lenin and taking up his ideas, and this book includes anarchist, feminist, anti-colonial, trans and queer readings of what Lenin was up to in Russia up to 1917 and after it. These Lenins remind us that to be communist is to be many things, to be many contradictory things at the same time.

Notwithstanding some of the old fixed-scheme Stalinist residues in this book, and some confused gobblydygook, structuralist, post-structuralist and phenomenological, what this “heritage” of Lenin does is to effectively reconfigure him as someone who is, in effect, profoundly “intersectional.” In chapters of this book we see how “Leninist” it is to develop analyses of “racial capitalism” and “social reproduction” and much more. Many contrasting standpoints of the exploited and oppressed reclaim Lenin in this book and link him to social movements that we must now be linked with if we are to be authentically Leninist.

The book includes the fruits of careful historical study, so we travel with “Dr Jacob Richter” (his pseudonym to get a ticket from the British Library) around London on the top of a London bus, and we learn about how he spent crucial months just before the Russian Revolution reading Hegel and coming to an understanding of the need to “smash” the state instead of taking it over and of the need to turn to the anti-colonial movements. We are reminded of how and why Putin hates Lenin, blaming him for actively supporting the national independence of Ukraine, and of the debates over the rights of colonised nations with Rosa Luxemburg, who should have known better.

And as well as learning – the book could be used as the basis of an educational course in revolutionary Marxism, tracking theoretical developments, historical processes and some bad mistakes – you will, at moments laugh. Rosa Luxemburg writes to a friend (and this comment is referred to by at least three of the contributors) “Yesterday Lenin came, and up to today he has been here four times already. I enjoy talking with him, he’s clever and well educated, and has such an ugly mug, the kind I like to look at.”

Communism

This is an unashamedly partisan book, on the side of the exploited and oppressed and showing that Lenin, for all his faults, was too. The editors tell us that “The shamelessly immodest purpose of this book is to be an active part of this process of communisting; in our case, an unapologetically Leninist one”. It is a brave project, time-consuming, and now it takes time to read it – this is a big book – but worth it if we are to take Lenin to heart and liberate ourselves.


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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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