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In These Times
January 21, 2004

What Is To be Done (with Lenin)?
by Slavoj Zizek

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin died on January 21 1924, 80 years ago - does the embarrassed silence over his name mean that he died twice, that his legacy is also dead? His insensitivity toward personal freedoms is effectively foreign to our liberal-tolerant sensibility ­ who, today, would not experience a shudder apropos his dismissive remarks against the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionaries' critique of the Bolshevik power in 1922?

"Indeed, the sermons which...the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: 'The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again.' But we say in reply: 'Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements.'"

This dismissive attitude towards the "liberal" notion of freedom accounts for Lenin's bad reputation among liberals. Their case largely rests upon their rejection of the standard Marxist-Leninist opposition of "formal" and "actual" freedom, but as even leftist liberals like Claude Lefort emphasize again and again, freedom is in its very notion "formal," so that "actual freedom" equals the lack of freedom. Lenin is best remembered for his famous retort "Freedom - yes, but for whom? To do what?" For him, in the above-quoted case of the Mensheviks, their "freedom" to criticize the Bolshevik government effectively amounted to the "freedom" to undermine the workers' and peasants' government on behalf of the counterrevolution.

But today, after the terrifying experience of the Really Existing Socialism, is it not more than obvious where the fault of this reasoning resides? First, it reduces a historical constellation to a closed, fully contextualized situation in which the "objective" consequences of one's acts are fully determined ("independent of your intentions, what you are doing now objectively serves..."). Second, the position of enunciation of such statements usurps the right to decide what your acts 'objectively mean,' so that their apparent "objectivism" is the form of its opposite, a thorough subjectivism: I decide what your acts objectively mean, since I define the context of a situation (say, if I conceive of my power as the immediate equivalent/expression of the power of the working class, then everyone who opposes me is "objectively" an enemy of the working class).

Is this, however, the whole story? How does freedom effectively function in liberal democracies? Although Clinton's presidency epitomized the Third Way of today's (ex-) Left succumbing to the Rightist ideological blackmail, his healthcare reform program would nonetheless have amounted to a kind of act, at least in today's conditions, since it would have been based on the rejection of the hegemonic notions of the need to curtail Big State expenditure and administration - in a way, it aimed to "do the impossible." No wonder then that it failed. Its failure - perhaps the only significant, although negative, event of Clinton's presidency‹bore witness to the material force of the ideological notion of "free choice." That is to say, although the large majority of the so-called "ordinary people" were not properly acquainted with the reform program, the medical lobby (twice as strong as the infamous defense lobby!) succeeded in imposing on the public the fundamental idea that, with universal healthcare, the free choice (in matters concerning medicine) will be somehow threatened - against this purely fictional reference to "free choice", all enumeration of "hard facts" (in Canada, healthcare is less expensive and more effective, with no less free choice, etc.) proved ineffective.

We are here at the very nerve center of the liberal ideology: the insistence on freedom of choice‹so urgent today in the era of what sociologists like Ulrich Beck call "risk society" - even as the ruling ideology endeavors to sell us the very insecurity caused by the dismantling of the Welfare State as the opportunity for new freedoms. Do you have to change jobs every year, relying on short-term contracts instead of a long-term stable appointment? Why not see it as the liberation from the constraints of a fixed job, as the chance to reinvent yourself again and again, to become aware of and realize hidden potentials of your personality? Can you no longer rely on the standard health insurance and retirement plan, so that you have to opt for additional coverage for which you have to pay? Why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either better life now or long-term security? And if this predicament causes you anxiety, the postmodern or "second modernity" ideologist will immediately accuse you of being unable to assume full freedom, of indulging in the "escape from freedom," of the immature sticking to old stable forms. Even better, when this situation is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the psychological individual pregnant with natural abilities and tendencies, one automatically interprets all these changes as the results of their personality, not as the result of being thrown around by market forces.

Phenomena like these make it all the more necessary today to reassert the opposition of "formal" and "actual" freedom in a new, more precise, sense. Let us take the situation in the Eastern European countries around 1990, when the Really Existing Socialism was falling apart: all of a sudden, people were thrown into a situation of "freedom of political choice" - however, were they really at any point asked the fundamental question of what kind of new order they actually wanted? People were first told that they are entering the promised land of political freedom; then, soon afterwards, they were informed that this freedom involves wild privatization, the dismantling of the social security, etc. etc. They still have the freedom to choose, so if they want, they can step out; but, no, our heroic Eastern Europeans didn't want to disappoint their Western tutors, they stoically persisted in the choice they never made, convincing themselves that they should behave as mature subjects who are aware that freedom has its price. And here one should risk to reintroduce the Leninist opposition of "formal" and "actual" freedom: the moment of truth in Lenin's acerbic retort to his Menshevik critics is that the truly free choice is a choice in which I do not merely choose between two or more options within a pre-given set of coordinates, but I choose to change this set of coordinates itself. The catch of the "transition" from the Really Existing Socialism to capitalism was that people never had the chance to choose the ad quem of this transition - all of a sudden, they were (almost literally) "thrown" into a new situation in which they were presented with a new set of given choices (pure liberalism, nationalist conservatism).

This is what Lenin's obsessive tirades against "formal" freedom are about, and therein resides their "rational kernel" worth saving today: when he underlines that there is no "pure" democracy, that we should always ask whom does a freedom under consideration serve and where is its role in the class struggle, his point is precisely to maintain the possibility of the true radical choice. This is what the distinction between "formal" and "actual" freedom ultimately amounts to: "formal" freedom is the freedom of choice within the coordinates of the existing power relations, while "actual" freedom designates the site of an intervention which undermines these very coordinates. In short, Lenin's point is not to limit freedom of choice, but to maintain the fundamental Choice - when Lenin asks about the role of a freedom within the class struggle, what he is asking is precisely: "Does this freedom contribute to or constrain the fundamental revolutionary Choice?"

The most popular TV show of recent years in France, with a viewer rating two times higher than that of the notorious "Big Brother" reality soaps, was C'est mon choix ("It is my choice"), a talk-show whose guest is each time an ordinary (or, exceptionally, well-known) person who made a peculiar choice which determined his or her entire life-style: one of them decided never to wear underwear, another tries all the time to find a more appropriate sexual partner for his father and mother. Extravagance is allowed, solicited even, but with the explicit exclusion of the choices which may disturb the public (say, a person whose choice is to be and act as a racist, is a priori excluded). Can one imagine a better predicament of what the "freedom of choice" effectively amounts to in our liberal societies? We can go on making our small choices, "reinventing ourselves" thoroughly, on the condition that these choices do not seriously disturb the social and ideological balance. With regard to the C¹est mon choix, the truly radical thing would have been to focus precisely on the "disturbing" choices: to invite as guests people like dedicated racists, i.e. people whose choice (whose difference) does make a difference. This, also, is the reason why, today, "democracy" is more and more a false issue, a notion so discredited by its predominant use that, perhaps, one should take the risk of abandoning it to the enemy. Where, how, by whom are the key decisions concerning global social issues made? Are they made in the public space, through the engaged participation of the majority? If the answer is yes, it is of secondary importance if the state has a one-party system. If the answer is no, it is of secondary importance if we have parliamentary democracy and freedom of individual choices.

Apropos of the disintegration of State Socialism two decades ago, one should not forget that, at approximately the same time, the Western Social Democratic welfare state ideology was also dealt a crucial blow, that it also ceased to function as the imaginary goal able to arouse a collective passionate following. The notion that "the time of the welfare state has past" is today a piece of commonly accepted wisdom. What these two defeated ideologies shared is the notion that humanity as a collective subject has the capacity to somehow limit impersonal and anonymous socio-historic development, to steer it in a desired direction. Today, such a notion is quickly dismissed as "ideological" and/or "totalitarian": the social process is again perceived as dominated by an anonymous Fate beyond social control. The rise of global capitalism is presented to us as such a Fate, against which one cannot fight‹one either adapts oneself to it or one falls out of step with history and is crushed. The only thing one can do is to make global capitalism as human as possible, to fight for "global capitalism with a human face" (this is what, ultimately, the Third Way is - or, rather, was - about).

Our basic political choice in the United States - Democrat or Republican - cannot but remind us of our predicament when we want artificial sweetener in an American cafeteria: the all-present alternative of Equal and Sweet & Low, of blue and red small bags, where almost each person has his/her preferences (avoid the red ones, they contain cancerous substances, or vice-versa), and this ridiculous sticking to one's choice merely accentuates the utter meaninglessness of the alternative. And does the same not go for the soda drinks: Coke or Pepsi? It is a well-known fact that the "Close the door" button in most elevators is a totally disfunctional placebo, placed there just to give the individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey - when we push this button, the door closes in exactly the same time as when we just pressed the floor button without "speeding up" the process by pressing also the "Close the door" button. This extreme case of fake participation is an appropriate metaphor of the participation of individuals in our "postmodern" political process.

This is why we tend to avoid Lenin today: not because he was an "enemy of freedom," but because he reminds us of the fatal limitation of our freedoms; not because he offers us no choice, but because he reminds us that our "society of choices" precludes any true choice.