Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Partisan in Philosophy: Lenin

by Gary Tedman

Partisanship was a feature of Lenin’s political intervention into philosophy that the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser wrote about (see Althusser ‘Lenin and Philosophy’ 1971, p30-32). As Althusser explained, Lenin asked a very impertinent question of philosophy. He asked: what is philosophy doing as a practice? He questioned what position it had in the class struggle. In this way, he revealed the ideological nature of philosophy in its relationship to the sciences. By openly declaring his own partisanship in philosophy, Lenin was also exposing the fact that all philosophy is sided.

Althusser understood Lenin in this respect. He understood that philosophy as a discipline is a battlefield, and that Lenin was not ashamed to declare his position on this battlefield as the correct position, and to support a particular thesis as ‘scientific’. This has been described as Lenin’s ‘Marxist ontology’ or his theory of being, but ontology approaches the question of being by supposing one can proceed from a non-position to arrive at a position, while Lenin shows us we are always/already in a position, we are always/already sided in the dialectical process.

We do not here, therefore, with Lenin, and not necessarily with Althusser (as some commentators have claimed), arrive at a scientific theory of ‘science as science’, self-justifying and for all time, for this considers science as if devoid of content. Certainly, if you alleged “science is correct because it is science” it would be an empty tautology. But Lenin does assert the possibility of being correct through struggle.

Lenin’s stance was essentially derived from the legacy of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Elea transmitted via Marx and Engels. The ‘Zenoan’ dialectic allows us to see how the cosmos is always/already sided, we have preferences and we must discriminate, and there are thresholds, limits, boundaries, colours, and opposites in the play of the dialectic, which is also at play ‘in us’. The dominant ideology of capitalism asserts that ‘discrimination’ (conflating it with bigotry) is a bad thing and it tries to limit its incidences from a notional position apparently higher than any involvement in everyday battle, or from a medium point of a notional ‘balance’. Lenin called this a ‘shamefaced’ position, while Althusser described it as ‘denegation’. It hides, disavows, and disguises the role of ruling class philosophy, and its ‘world view’ in the class struggle, in other words it keeps hidden the fact that it is sided and must be sided. There is in reality no fence to sit on. Despite all the strictures surrounding ‘discrimination’ in capitalist democracy we know that discrimination, or rather to give it a more accurate term 'bigoted privileging', even according to the accepted statistics, is common today in advanced capitalist democracies. The very regulations against discrimination function to hide this fact and to create the illusion that it is a problem that the ruled must be saved from by the rulers.

But let us not be mistaken here. It is not that Marxists or Communists always seek conflict, or should like to, and cannot be friendly or maintain a popular front because of this position, but more the case that for Marxism recognition of partisanship and of our embedded-ness in class struggle is the precondition for a fair and ‘equal’ debate about what is to be done. As in Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, this means we must see the dominant class notions of equality and social justice as limited by the actual capitalist economic conditions. Talking of the Lassallean influence in the programme Marx writes:

“…equal right here is still in principle -- bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.

In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.

But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only -- for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

…Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” (Marx)

Lenin was able to act practically on many of the principles written by Marx in this theoretical Critique; it was this kind of understanding that essentially enabled the Bolsheviks to be successful in their strategies and arguments and gave them their unique tendency within the Communist movement. They essentially took Marx’s advice about how it was a crime to repeat as dogmas:

“…ideas which in a certain period had some meaning but have now become obsolete verbal rubbish, while again perverting, on the other, the realistic outlook, which it cost so much effort to instil into the Party but which has now taken root in it, by means of ideological nonsense about right and other trash so common among the democrats and French socialists.” (Marx)

These lessons remain largely unlearned even by many Communist parties today, a long time later. This is not so surprising. But it means we can still find ourselves not being able to distinguish between a strategy of popular front in practice and a popular front in theory, in the latter where it functions just to reanimate all the ‘ideological rubbish’ Marx referred to. And still today Lenin comes under attack not just from his usual reactionary detractors but from his erstwhile friends who, being tainted by a critical liberal tradition, are perhaps unable to free themselves entirely from the same old notions of right.

In this context we might refer to Slavoj Zizek’s mild (but pointed) criticism of Lenin (2001, ‘What can Lenin tell us about Freedom Today?’ in Rethinking Marxism Vol.13, No.2.), that he identified himself with revolution and ‘correctness’ too readily, which I think is, for the above reasons, rather unjust. Someone had to accept the role of leader during the difficult period in question (circa 1917) without a shamefaced attitude. To avoid identification as a leader of an actual vanguard party while being actually engaged in that leadership would have been an abdication of his responsibility, and a disavowal (or denegation) of his sidedness. Lenin was being true to his philosophical word. Althusser, I believe, despite his championing of Lenin’s position, had some difficulty of his own reconciling his Marxist sidedness with the influence on him of figures like Lacan, a hero of Zizek and someone who strongly represented the attempt to undercut the supposed ‘mastery’ of authority that ‘correctness’ entails by way of a surrealist strategy, intellectually popular since Breton, which Freud (also a good materialist in philosophy) had resisted condoning.