Politics

The Return of Lenin in Progressive Disguise

Marxism-Leninism and our Western-style progressive movement are two very different entities, and yet the obsessiveness and dogmatism of the latter is increasingly reminiscent of Soviet practices. We are no longer dealing with relatively open-minded American-style liberalism or British-Australian versions of social democracy, but an unapologetic fanaticism. What Marxist-Leninists and our own modern-day leftists share, above everything else, is a comparable eschatological sensibility, a certainty about the final destiny of humankind and an unshakeable self-belief that they have the wherewithal to lead us to their promised land. Today’s progressives, in short, are secular millennialists who constitute a new chapter of radical elitism which demands that ordinary people—deplorables, if you will—accede to a worldview conceived not by a theological priesthood but by an ideological vanguard. This is despotism dressed up as a moral imperative. It is, a là Marxism-Leninism, a successor to the absolutism of medieval monarchism, just the latest form of tyranny to be inflicted upon the common person.

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Some will object to linking the modern-day progressive movement with the organising principles of Leninism. After all, today only a small minority of left-wingers openly acknowledge the modus operandi of V.I. Lenin as emancipatory and worthy of emulation, Slovenian political philosopher Slavoj Žižek being something of an exception. Moreover, though “socialism” has ceased to be a pejorative in progressive circles, few are calling for the nationalisation of the entire means of production, something Marxist-Leninists believe critical to the ultimate realisation of a harmonious people’s community. Nevertheless, the imperialist-Leninists in Beijing have found a way to co-opt capitalism in order to advance their political agenda, and Lenin himself advocated certain compromises with capitalism—as per his 1921 New Economic Policy—on the way to a paradisiacal people’s community. If a ruling clique can regulate the financial system, the mainstream media, and the secret police, as did Lenin and Hitler, some flexibility on the private enterprise front is permissible. What must never be forsaken, however, is a sacrosanct belief that heaven on earth is within reach as long as the (counter-revolutionary) forces of darkness are vanquished.

Richard Landes details the phenomenon in his book Heaven on Earth (see Quadrant, December 2011, “The Millennial Psychosis”). Lenin, as depicted in Landes’s book, did not mount a putsch in October 1917 in order to inspire an international revolution. Millennial psychosis had turned him into a veritable Bakuninist who came to believe the improvised policy of War Communism (1918 to 1921) would open the way in Russia to “the egalitarian messianic world to come”. Landes cites this eyewitness account by Trotsky of Lenin’s cataclysmic mania:

I recall very clearly that in the first period, at Smolny, at meetings of the Council of People’s Commissars, Lenin invariably repeated that we shall have socialism in half a year and become the mightiest state.

The mind-boggling barbarity of Lenin’s Red Terror takes on a new meaning when we view him as a violent, apocalyptic millennialist determined to achieve heaven on earth. Lenin had all the best reasons to do the worst things.

Today’s radical might be less interested in the dictatorship of the proletariat than the dictatorship of bohemia, but a similar millennialist fervour is at work and, once again, there are all the best reasons to do the worst things. The nature of old-style Leninism requires some urgent revisiting. The campaign to reverse Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW), for instance, contains key aspects of Lenin’s apocalyptic millennialism. Leftist ideologues, such as Naomi Klein, long ago made the connection between “the egalitarian messianic world to come” and the overthrow of what she would call Late Capitalism. In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), Klein does not disguise her hope that CAGW alarmism will usher in a socialist transformation where anti-consumerism (as in her book No Logo, 1999) and anti-corporate globalism (The Shock Doctrine, 2007) failed to do the deed. It might be a case of third time lucky given the advent of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and Klein’s recently published book The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. Save the planet and save humanity at the same time—it is, as Klein-the-socialist has already pronounced, “the opportunity of multiple lifetimes”.

If millennial psychosis is the most important characteristic shared by Marxist-Leninist radicalism and New Left radicalism, antipathy towards ordinary working people might run a close second. Lenin’s radical elitism announced itself with the publication of What is to be Done? (1902). The working class depicted therein existed to serve the greater glory of a revolutionary party and not the other way around. Apologists, nevertheless, maintain Lenin called for the ascendancy of a professional vanguard because only a revolutionary elite could survive Tsarist autocracy. The fact that the Bolsheviks, in the aftermath of October 1917, foisted a ruling clique of professional activists on the Russian people supposedly had nothing to do with the elitism espoused in What is to be Done? Such a claim, to put it politely, is at some variance from the truth. Rosa Luxemburg, murdered in 1919, long warned of the dangers of Lenin’s “intransigent centralism” and top-down organising principles that portended the dictatorship of the party over the people in Soviet Russia. It is why we can meaningfully refer to Lenin and Stalin as Red Tsars and the People’s Republic of China as the Communist Dynasty.

The reality for the original Leninists is that vanguardism and professional activism detached them from ordinary working people. Some ordinary workers wangled a place for themselves in the lower echelons of the Soviet governing class (nomenklatura) but that meant they were no longer ordinary. Lenin’s dislike of authentic trade unionism in communist Russia found its expression in his clash with Alexander Shlyapnikov, one of very few leading Bolsheviks in 1921 who could be described as working-class. Lenin unequivocally rejected the notion of an independent trade union movement in Soviet Russia and shattered Shlyapnikov’s reputation by accusing him of membership of the so-called Workers’ Opposition faction. That was the end of Shlyapnikov’s political career since factionalism was, in the new Leninist orthodoxy, a counter-revolutionary crime. Fifteen years later, Stalin had the party’s foremost worker-intellectual executed, ensuring that the vanguard of the workers was truly worker-free.

Our own modern-day radicals have, over time, become similarly estranged from the working class. Perhaps it began in 1968 in Paris when Marxist academics and students attempted a workers’ uprising without any workers. In the United States, meanwhile, Bill Ayers’s Weatherman Underground Organisation sought to initiate a socialist revolution with one blue-collar worker in their ranks, Larry Grathwohl, and he turned out to an FBI informant. For fashionable radical philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond, from Michel Foucault to Jean Baudrillard, the working class simply did not “get it”. The refusal of the proletariat to carry out its historical mission, as assigned by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, was a case of self-delusion on the part of the proletariat or the totalitarianism of Late Capitalism or a combination of the two. The upshot, in any case, is that radicals and progressives in the West have now given themselves permission to pursue one of the principles of Leninism: to act in the name of the people without being of the people.

The original Leninists, the Marxist-Leninists, demonstrated their antipathy towards ordinary working people at every turn, commencing with the suspension of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets in October 1917 before establishing a dictatorship in the name of the people, a ruse that endured for the next seventy-odd years. Lenin not only proscribed an independent trade union movement in his Soviet empire but, at Kronstadt in 1921, ordered the slaughter of thousands of protesting proletarians. The anti-working-class nature of Marxist-Leninist autocrats is encapsulated in Berthold Brecht’s poem “The Solution”, written as a response to the suppression by 20,000 Soviet soldiers of the 1953 workers’ uprising in East Berlin: 

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas.
Would it not be simpler
For the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

It is now the turn of the working class in the West, especially with their support for Brexit, Donald Trump, and even our Scott Morrison, to forfeit the confidence of their progressively-minded intellectual superiors. The decision of the people of the United Kingdom to leave the undemocratic and transnational European Union has, so far, been foiled by undemocratic and transnational progressives because the Brexit referendum was a “misinformed” outcome. Had the working class understood what was in their best interests, or so the narrative goes, they would never have voted Leave. Likewise in the United States, the vote by the blue-collar workers of the so-called Rust Belt for Candidate Trump was a case of them being deceived by Vladimir Putin or misled by white-supremacist dog-whistling. Either way, the decision on Election Day 2016 must be rejected as invalid and, one way or another, revoked. The Great Kremlin Conspiracy, the Mueller investigation and currently the Ukraine hoax can be viewed as attempts by a progressive elite to rescind the erroneous judgment of the people. 

Lenin’s “government of the people” (Sovnarkom) terminated proceedings at the people’s parliament (Constituent Assembly) in January 1918 after permitting it to exist for a mere forty hours. The Bolsheviks had run a distant second in the first and only democratic election Russians would experience until Boris Yeltsin, campaigning as the anti-communist candidate, won the 1990 presidential race in the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. Back in the winter of 1918, the courageous citizens in St Petersburg who demonstrated against the decision to end the Constituent Assembly were dispersed by sniper gunfire, possibly emanating from the Red Latvian Riflemen. Lenin, writing anonymously in the Bolshevik Party’s newspaper Pravda, explained that his revolutionary regime constituted a higher form of democracy than “the usual bourgeois republic with a Constituent Assembly”. These words, let us not forget, were written by a man who believed Soviet Russia was at the threshold of an “egalitarian messianic world”. Shutting down the Constituent Assembly tells us much of what we need to know about the spirit of Leninism, which might be summarised as a vanguard of radicals determined to destroy the enemies of the people even if those enemies are the people. 

Today a blizzard of unsolicited academic papers piles up in my email inbox denouncing the “illiberal majoritarianism” of populism, lambasting working-class people for adopting conservative or politically incorrect positions on unregulated immigration, open borders, revisionist history, traditional Christian faith, old-school ethics, Islamic revivalism, transnational governance, caucasophobia, third-wave feminism, CAGW and so on ad infinitum. There has been a major parting of the ways, as Salvatore Babones documented in The Tyranny of Experts, between the aspirations of the working class and the PC brigade, a growing vanguard of professional (or tenured) activists who pursue their self-appointed historical mission to save us from the warping effects of Western civilisation or, to put it another way, save us from ourselves and, even more ambitiously, save the world from Western civilisation. Any ordinary person who opposes this progressive orthodoxy is, as I argued in “Progressive Ideology and the Ghosts of Nazism”, (Quadrant, March 2019) a little Eichmann under the spell of Adolf Trump. Thank God (if that is the right expression), we now have a surfeit of “community organisers”, as Barack Obama termed them, to instruct us on what should be our worldview. 

Lenin was there a hundred years before Obama et al. Leading Bolsheviks were inspired by Nicolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to be Done? (1863), a veritable ode to the prototype community organiser. Some understood right away the problem of professional meddlers. Tolstoy recoiled at “the spiritual disease of political obsession” of the activists seeking utopia, while Dostoyevsky satirised the nihilism of revolutionary utopians in his novella Notes from the Underground, with this passage being especially apt: “I will never sacrifice anything, not even a whim, for the sake of something I desire. What I want, with all my heart, is to make people happy. In this lies my happiness. Mine! Can you hear that, you, in your underground hole?” Lenin, a professional activist agitating for utopia throughout his adult life before becoming a despot and unleashing the Red Terror, had a very different opinion of Chernyshevsky’s characters. They were, he thought, admirably disciplined insurrectionists who subordinated themselves to the cause of attaining “eternal joy” for the Russian people. Pre-1917 Lenin, the relentless left-wing polemicist and conspirator, not to mention early cycling enthusiast, admired the ascetism, revolutionary commitment, and even fitness regime of Chernyshevsky’s fictitious community organisers.

These days, of course, the sheer volume of full-time activists being funded by private left-wing organisations would surprise even Lenin. Arabella Advisors, for instance, has hundreds of millions of dollars at its disposal. Founded by a member of the Clinton administration and bankrolled by prosperous supporters, this private body pays community organisers/social-welfare activists—professional insurrectionists, if you like—to destroy the enemies of progressive ideology in any way imaginable. Tolstoy’s allusion to “the spiritual disease of political obsession” comes to mind. In the case of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, targeted for character assassination on account of his potentially unreliable pro-choice stance, Arabella Advisors itself was careful to remain detached throughout the orchestrated campaign to portray Kavanaugh as a teenage rapist, and yet one of its divisions, Demand Justice, took the lead in the original 2018 smear operation and again in the 2019 reprise. Kavanaugh was not guilty of the accusations brought against him because they were (a) unsubstantiated, (b) denied by Kavanaugh, (c) improbable, (d) incompatible with Kavanaugh’s character, and (e) politically driven. It is the last point, paradoxically enough, that progressive ideo­logues are able to invert the most successfully. Lenin’s designation for an enemy of his people’s revolution was, chillingly, “former person”. Kavanaugh, like any high-profile conservative not prepared to denounce President Trump, is today’s former person, the specific charges against Kavanaugh being neither here nor there.

Newspapers, according to Lenin, were either politically correct or politically wrong and that was more or less the end of the matter. The idea that a newspaper proprietor might entertain divergent opinions or points of view different from his own makes no sense from a Leninist point of view. Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year-old person of autism, may have said it best in a chapter of her Penguin classic, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019), titled “Almost Everything is Black and White”. One presumes that Australian publisher Morry Schwartz is sympathetic to Thunberg’s apocalyptic standpoint, given that his company recently issued Greta’s Story, a biography of the young activist. Moreover, Schwartz’s weekly Saturday Paper blasted Prime Minister Scott Morrison—in an op-ed that constituted its entire front-page reading—for not agreeing with Greta Thunberg that the world is “in the beginning of a mass extinction”.

Schwartz, a fabulously wealthy businessman, uses his personal publishing house, Black Inc, to air his mostly progressive outlook. The one area, as far as I can discern, in which he tellingly breaks with the PC brigade is on matters concerning Israel, which is not surprising given his family connections with the Jewish state. It is to Schwartz’s credit that Holocaust inversion has been given short shrift at Black Inc, but this glitch in his left-wing orthodoxy exposes a larger point: his writers, editors and journalists are paid to toe the party line and contrarian opinions are not welcome. Analogously, the new chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Ita Buttrose, has called for greater cultural diversity while doubling down on the state-funded broadcaster’s political uniformity. Vladimir Lenin, premier of the multicultural Soviet empire, would understand.     

A big-league version of the Saturday Paper storyline might be the Washington Post, purchased by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos in 2013. He paid $250 million for the pleasure of becoming an instant press baron, no more than loose change for the richest man in the world. Bezos’s idea of progressivism, in the tradition of neo-Leninism, has nothing to do with working-class people or wage-earners in general, as evidenced by the strike last year of 400 of his newspaper employees. Whether his publication justifies his ongoing financial expenses is mostly beside the point, and so there is no need for the Washington Post to seek the middle ground on political issues, apart perhaps from criticising Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful campaign to keep the new Amazon headquarters out of New York.

There are radicals and there are radicals, as Lenin fumed while chairman of Sovnarkom, and he came up with the perfect insult for revolutionary activists who came at him from the port side: left-wing infantilism. It was, after all, the executive body of his party, the vanguard of the people, that was in sole possession of the truth, as the name of its newspaper, Pravda (Truth), attested. When he was younger, Lenin battled with different meanings of truth (there is even another Russian word for it: istina) and yet, as an absolute ruler in the grip of his apocalyptic millennialist ideology, he played for real the role of Dostoyevsky’s fictitious misanthropic utopian: “I will never sacrifice anything, not even a whim, for the sake of something I desire … Can you hear that, you, in your underground hole?” There is no provisional truth in the worldview of political dogmatists, no place for respectfully and genuinely debating a subject. Almost everything is black and white, remember? The Washington Post established “The Fact Checker” to slander opinions the Pravda-on-the-Potomac opposed. Members of this partisan tribunal are dubbed, risibly enough, the “truth squad”.

The collusion between the establishment media, progressive politics and the FBI and CIA is now a matter of historical record. A notable feature of the original Leninism was the role of Felix Dzerzhinsky and the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage (Cheka). Dzerzhinsky’s still unnamed intelligence network existed before the October putsch but even by the end of 1917 it might have numbered no more than thirteen full-time agents. A year later, though, the Cheka had grown to a membership of some 10,000 and was organising revolutionary tribunals. Both old and new Leninists could be considered both radical and at odds with the common sense and democratic aspirations of ordinary people. There is, surely, a certain affinity between the sense of superiority of intelligence agencies and Leninists of any era.                 

One of the key books that helped to wean me, as a young man, off the Leninism-of-the-twentieth-century was the late Vladimir Bukovsky’s To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter (1978). Bukovsky, who desired nothing less than to be the architect of his own life, was diagnosed by Soviet psychiatrists as mentally ill during the period of Late Communism. The logic of his persecutors maintained that since Really Existing Socialism was the best possible world, and Marxist-Leninism the best possible worldview, Bukovsky’s contrarianism represented a case of not merely foolishness but outright insanity. Bukovsky, as a consequence, needed to be institutionalised in a psychiatric ward, a particularly cruel and perverse fate for an independent and clear-thinking individual.

It was with a sense of déjà vu, then, that I waded through the updated version of Bandy X. Lee’s The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, in which a collection of eminent psychiatrists formulate a series of pretend maladies, newly invented diseases, and bogus mental disorders to justify their aversion to the politics of President Trump. One expert, for example, explains Donald Trump’s part as a secret agent for Vladimir Putin in terms of President Trump’s narcissistic need “to be loved all the time”. But what if Trump, as the Mueller Report disclosed, is not Putin’s puppet? And what about the fact that Trump seems to be coping astonishingly well in the face of a totalitarian-like campaign of non-stop vilification? Maybe the next edition of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump will devise a new syndrome to explain that. Better still, our distinguished psychiatrists might discover a cure for their own Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Even our supposedly independent creators have been co-opted by “The Cause”. Thus, it is all right for innovative and trail-blazing artists to push the envelope, break taboos and expose demons, but only so long as those envelopes, taboos and demons are vetted by someone higher up the PC chain-of-command. It is in this context that we should view the Griffith University Art Gallery exhibiting Melbourne artist Juan Davila’s depiction of Holy Mary, Mother of God, cradling a giant penis. Davila, according to his own PR, “often tackles complex subjects”. However, the complex subjects Davila chooses to tackle, as evinced by the history of his work, could all have PC-approved stamped on them. His oeuvre might be summarised as “Western civilisation bad, everything else good”. (Not so far from Lenin’s thesis in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.)

At this stage of the twenty-first century, Davila’s iconoclasm is no more than consensus opinion in polite society or, to put it another way, a cliché. Griffith University Pro-Vice-Chancellor Scott Harrison summed up the mission statement for avant-garde art as well as anyone: “Art exhibited at the Museum can at times be confronting and challenging, but always thought-provoking.” Harrison only erred in asserting that Davila’s drawings have more to do with avant-gardism than the formulaic didactics of vanguardism. Davila’s work is not art, in the Western tradition of subverting bourgeois sensibilities, but agitprop in the service of our own well-heeled and deep-pocketed nomenklatura.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the partisan role the state today plays in the arts, from subsidising PC-observant artists, writers, researchers, magazines and playwrights, to Victoria’s NGV cancelling a presentation by Hong Kong performer/freedomist Denise Ho. Had this decision anything to do with the NGV hosting, at the same time, Xian’s terracotta warriors alongside PRC-sanctioned artist Cai Guo-Qiang? Cai Guo-Qiang knows how to keep his mouth shut about the despotic regime of President-for-Life Xi Jinping, because he is in an analogous position to Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich and every other artist who has worked in the shadow of Marxist-Leninism. Cai knows what happened to Ai Weiwei after he refused to appease the regime. Imprisonment in the PRC, even for a relatively brief stretch, proved both physically and psychologically devastating. The NGV’s five-star presentation of Cai Guo-Qiang’s innocuous work could not have been more dissimilar from its mistreatment of Hong Kong’s musician-cum-protester Denise Ho. Because we still retain some freedoms in Australia, she found another venue in Melbourne to speak up against communist tyranny before flying back to Hong Kong and possible arrest. At least she will not, as things stand, face extradition to the People’s Republic of China.

How Orwellian, I remarked to a PRC expatriate, that Beijing’s new social monitoring system should evaluate everyone’s entire online activity in China. “What about your Google?” he retorted. The listening ear of Google did make me think of a joke: “Siri, is Big Brother on television tonight?” And Google Inc is reportedly assisting the capitalist-Leninists in China with their artificial-intelligence project. I had reason to recall my interviewee’s remark when a Facebook posting of mine, concerning the brutality of the Hong Kong police, earned this rebuke from Big Tech: “Your post goes against our Community Standards so only you can see it.”

If the PRC can be characterised as Leninism embracing the market, might we not describe our own trajectory in the West as capitalism in search of Leninism? And might we not look for a solution to our problem in the people’s ultimately successful battle against twentieth-century Leninism in the Soviet empire? History is not, as Marx said, the history of class struggle, but it is the history of struggle.

Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and he tweets at @dosakamccann. A regular contributor to Quadrant, he wrote on Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in the July-August issue, and on Alexander Downer and George Papadopoulos in the October issue

2 comments
  • ianl

    > “History is not, as Marx said, the history of class struggle, but it is the history of struggle”

    Much forceful comment has been attributed to the monster Stalin, the volume likely exaggerated, but the two that have stayed with me (because they are relevant to politics anywhere) are:

    “You can’t fake power”. And, for example, because Trump has it, the powerless but powerlustful are driven spare.

    While climbing the greasy pole in the Politburo, when he (Stalin) was near the top but not quite there, he was driven spare by the constant refrains “Lenin wouldn’t do that; Lenin would think this; Lenin would have said … “. So: “How long must we listen to a dead man ?” he finally retorted.

    The various academies and powerlustful billionaires have misunderstood both these comments.

  • ianl

    To avoid misplaced criticism, I should point out that I am not comparing Stalin with Trump but merely pointing out that Stalin’s observations are timeless.

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