Though my article “The Actuality of the Revolution” centered on Lenin and 1917, it was really about the present. I think this became clearer as the debate on the article progressed, encompassing questions within the Occupy movement. For this reason, I’ve decided not to quibble over details, but rather to review the history in a way that more clearly shows how this debate, and the role the Bolsheviks played in 1917, speaks to our current historical conjuncture. Since the pressing question, the one that tied all these articles together, was actually the question of the party, I will try to clarify and elaborate my analysis of the function of the party form, responding to the three critiques of my original argument.
The future is over. This is the central, bold, and stark claim that Franco “Bifo” Berardi makes in his latest book After the Future. Time will continue onwards, but our collective and personal belief in a better future appears to have collapsed. This is a claim made all the more terrifying by its instinctual resonance. After several more years of austerity and crisis, the Invisible Committee’s rather grandiose claim that “everyone agrees that things can only get worse” appears to be meeting history and moving from the realm of polemical theory to common sense. The modernist dream of unending development has shattered. While the markets remain uncertain of future growth prospects and state administrators vacillate between austerity and neo-Keynesianism, the rest of society seems to be in a state of paralysis, punctuated by outbursts of disorganized rage, such as the riots witnessed in various British cities last summer. Bifo claims we are experiencing the rapid decomposition of the European working class through the intensification of precarity, widespread unemployment, and widespread depression. Hyper-exploitation, hyper-tension and the receding hope of a modest pension are the only things left for those still working in the Prozac and caffeine-fuelled economy of the twenty-first century.
May Day was a gamble for Occupy Wall Street, and a necessary one. Instead of heralding a national renewal, springtime has found Occupy short of ideas and running on vapors. Life after the encampments has not led to a generalization of occupations, and the prospect of reestablishing them in their initial form is remote. The 1st of May was logical timing for a revival – or at the very least, a lifeline, a confirmation of vitality, an open door. Bolstered by the call for an expanded general strike, May Day 2012 smelled of hope, but also desperation. Our sense at the outset was that failure in the streets – whether the result of low turnout, police out-maneuvering, or flat repetition of gesture – would radiate far beyond New York, effectively bringing the movement to an impasse. Although our fears ultimately proved unwarranted, there was little in our experience of May Day that augured an escalation of struggle; no spark to set the summer ablaze.
Long before the Haymarket Massacre, May Day represented a time of transition. Winter had receded; in anticipation of the wealth of summer, the people opted for leisure over work. The holiday shifted from “green” to “red” when leisure was attacked, work violently imposed, and wealth expropriated. May Day 2012 was another kind of transition – to what, nobody knows.
First entry in an exchange with Jacobin, by Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi: “We all wondered, as we watched Back to the Future, how alternative futures could change the whole universe while Marty McFly stayed the same. Those movies amounted to a Reaganite philosophy of history: the short-circuit between the Fifties and the Eighties which converts every contingent encounter into one reactionary loop, centered on the white man who secretly invents rock n’ roll, seduces his mother, and conquers the space-time continuum.”
Mohandesi’s picture of a vacillating, conservative, confused Lenin straining to hold together a divided Bolshevik leadership caught off guard by the mature revolutionary upsurge by St. Petersburg’s workers and soldiers during what came to be known as “the July Days” in 1917 is inconsistent with the historical record. Based on his sketch, Mohandesi concludes that Lenin had to catch up theoretically with where the masses were moving practically by “articulating” the “actuality of revolution,” that is, making explicit what was implicit in the angry mass protests that nearly toppled the Provisional Government. Both he and Chretien lead us to believe that Lenin’s book, State and Revolution, and the Bolshevik-led insurrection that overthrew the Provisional Government were the results of Lenin’s reconsideration of the Marxist theory of the state.
Comrade Lenin is just one in a long line of heroes I don’t know a lot about. He’s the kind of historical character engineered to model, made for a time when revolutionaries pinned up newspaper headshots over their beds and went to bed vowing to wake up and be more like Che or Mao or Gaddafhi or Carlos or Ulrike or Huey or even masked Marcos. The 20th Century saw Communist Parties and partying communists, but both had their icons. We are, however, iconoclasts; some bold sans-serif lulz-text in place of a black line.
This exchange grew out of a panel that Salar and I took part in at the Left Forum in New York in March 2012 called “State and Revolution: Is Lenin Still Relevant?” Salar happened to speak first at the panel and put forward such a thought-provoking analysis of the relationship between theory and practice, using Lenin’s writing of State and Revolution as an example, that I largely set aside my prepared remarks and decided to address some of the points he raised. What follows is a version of those responses. I will present brief summaries of Salar’s case and then offer some critical responses in numbered paragraphs.
This is a slightly edited version of a talk delivered at the Left Forum on March 18, for a panel called “State and Revolution: Is Lenin Still Relevant?” In the coming weeks, we will be posting a few more articles debating this history and its implications for the present.
William Brandon Jourdan is an independent filmmaker, journalist and writer. He is currently based in the Netherlands, where is working on a film about reactions to the financial crisis. One of his latest projects is the website Global Uprisings. In this interview, he discusses his video documentation of the last decade’s surges in popular unrest worldwide.