From International Socialism 2:95, Summer 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
If there is a consensus among (whatever remains of) today’s radical left, it is that, in order to resuscitate the radical political project, one should leave behind the Leninist legacy: the ruthless focusing on the class struggle, the party as the privileged form of organisation, the violent revolutionary seizure of power, the ensuing ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ ... are all these not ‘zombie-concepts’ to be abandoned if the left is to have any chance in the conditions of ‘post-industrial’ late capitalism?
The problem with this apparently convincing argument is that it endorses all too easily the inherited image of Lenin the wise revolutionary leader who, after formulating the basic co-ordinates of his thought and practice in What Is to Be Done?, just consistently and ruthlessly pursued them. What if there is another story about Lenin to be told? It is true that today’s left is undergoing a shattering experience of the end of an entire epoch of the progressive movement, the experience of which compels it to reinvent the very basic co-ordinates of its project – however, an exactly homologous experience was what gave birth to Leninism. Recall Lenin’s shock when, in the autumn of 1914, all European Social Democratic parties (with the honourable exception of the Russian Bolsheviks and the Serb Social Democrats) adopted the ‘patriotic line’ – Lenin even thought that the issue of Vorwärts, the daily newspaper of German Social Democracy, which reported how Social Democrats in the Reichstag had voted for the war credits, was a forgery of the Russian secret police designed to deceive the Russian workers. In that era of military conflict that cut the European continent in half, how difficult it was to reject the notion that one should take sides in this conflict, and to fight against the ‘patriotic fervour’ in one’s own country! How many great minds (including Freud) succumbed to the nationalist temptation, even if only for a couple of weeks! This shock of 1914 was – to put it in Alain Badiou’s terms – a désastre, a catastrophe in which an entire world disappeared: not only the idyllic bourgeois faith in progress, but also the socialist movement which accompanied it. Lenin himself (the Lenin of What Is to Be Done?) lost the ground under his feet – there is, in his desperate reaction, no satisfaction, no ‘I told you so!’ This moment of Verzweiflung, this catastrophe, opened up the site for the Leninist event, for breaking the evolutionary historicism of the Second International – and only Lenin was at the level of this opening, the one to articulate the truth of the catastrophe. This is the Lenin from which we still have something to learn. The greatness of Lenin was that, in this catastrophic situation, he wasn’t afraid to succeed – in contrast to the negative pathos discernible from Rosa Luxemburg to Adorno, for whom the ultimate authentic act is the admission of failure which brings the truth to light. In 1917, instead of waiting for the right moment of maturity, Lenin organised a pre-emptive strike. In 1920, as the leader of the party of the working class with no working class (most of it having been killed in the civil war), he went on organising a state, fully accepting the paradox of the party which has to organise, recreate even, its own base, its working class.
Nowhere is this greatness more palpable than in Lenin’s writings which cover the time span from February 1917, when the first revolution abolished Tsarism and installed a democratic regime, to the second revolution in October. In February, Lenin was a half-anonymous political émigré, stranded in Zurich, with no reliable contacts in Russia, mostly learning about events from the Swiss press. In October he led the first successful socialist revolution – so what happened in between? In February, Lenin immediately perceived the revolutionary chance, the result of unique contingent circumstances – if the moment was not seized, the chance for the revolution would be forfeited, perhaps for decades. In his stubborn insistence that one should take the risk and pass to the next stage, i.e. repeat the revolution, Lenin was alone, ridiculed by the majority of the central committee members of his own party, and the reading of Lenin’s texts from 1917 provides a unique glimpse into the obstinate, patient and often frustrating, revolutionary work through which Lenin imposed his vision. However, indispensable as Lenin’s personal intervention was, one should not modify the story of the October Revolution into that of the lone genius confronted with the disoriented masses and gradually imposing his vision. Lenin succeeded because his appeal, while bypassing the party nomenklatura, found an echo in what one is tempted to call revolutionary micropolitics: the incredible explosion of grassroots democracy, of local committees sprouting up all around Russia’s big cities and, while ignoring the authority of the ‘legitimate’ government, taking things into their hands. This is the untold story of the October Revolution.
The first thing to strike the eye of today’s reader is how directly readable Lenin’s texts from 1917 are. There is no need for long explanatory notes – even if the strange-sounding names are unknown to us, we immediately get what was at stake. From today’s distance the texts display an almost classical clarity of the contours of the struggle in which they participate. Lenin is fully aware of the paradox of the situation: in the spring of 1917, after the February Revolution which toppled the Tsarist regime, Russia was the most democratic country in the whole of Europe, with an unprecedented degree of mass mobilisation, freedom of organisation and freedom of the press – and yet this freedom rendered the situation non-transparent, thoroughly ambiguous. If there is a common thread that runs through all Lenin’s texts written ‘in between the two revolutions’ (the February one and the October one), it is his insistence on the gap which separates the ‘explicit’ formal contours of the political struggle between the multitude of parties and other political subjects from its actual social stakes (immediate peace, the distribution of land, and, of course, ‘all power to the soviets’, i.e. the dismantling of the existing state apparatus and its replacement with the new commune-like forms of social management).
This gap – the repetition of the gap between 1789 and 1793 in the French Revolution – is the very space of Lenin’s unique intervention: the fundamental lesson of revolutionary materialism is that revolution must strike twice, and for essential reasons. The gap is not simply the gap between form and content. What the ‘first revolution’ misses is not the content, but the form itself – it remains stuck in the old form, thinking that freedom and justice can be accomplished if we simply put to use the already existing state apparatus and its democratic mechanisms. What if the ‘good’ party wins the free elections and ‘legally’ implements socialist transformation? (The clearest expression of this illusion, bordering on the ridiculous, is Karl Kautsky’s thesis, formulated in the 1920s, that the logical political form of the first stage of socialism, of the passage from capitalism to socialism, is the parliamentary coalition of bourgeois and proletarian parties.) The parallel here is perfect with the era of early modernity, in which the opposition to the church’s ideological hegemony first articulated itself in the very form of another religious ideology, as a heresy. Along the same lines, the partisans of the ‘first revolution’ want to subvert the capitalist domination within the very political form of capitalist democracy. This is the Hegelian ‘negation of the negation’: first the old order is negated within its own ideologico-political form; then this form itself has to be negated. Those who oscillate, those who are afraid to make the second step of overcoming this form itself, are those who (to repeat Robespierre) want a ‘revolution without revolution’ – and Lenin displays all the strength of his ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ in discerning the different forms of this retreat.
In his writings of 1917 Lenin saves his utmost acerbic irony for those who engage in the endless search for some kind of ‘guarantee’ for the revolution. This guarantee assumes two main forms: either the reified notion of social necessity (one should not risk the revolution too early; one has to wait for the right moment, when the situation is ‘mature’ with regard to the laws of historical development: ‘it is too early for the socialist revolution – the working class is not yet mature’) or the normative (‘democratic’) legitimacy (‘the majority of the population is not on our side, so the revolution would not really be democratic’) – as Lenin repeatedly puts, as if, before the revolutionary agent risks the seizure of state power, it should get permission from some figure of the big Other (organise a referendum which will ascertain that the majority supports the revolution). With Lenin, as with Lacan, the point is that the revolution can only be authorised by itself: one should assume the revolutionary act is not covered by the big Other – the fear of taking power ‘prematurely’, the search for a guarantee, is the fear of the abyss of the act. Therein resides the ultimate dimension of what Lenin incessantly denounces as ‘opportunism’, and his wager is that ‘opportunism’ is a position which is in itself inherently false, masking fear to accomplish the act with the protective screen of ‘objective’ facts, laws or norms.
Lenin’s answer is not the reference to a different set of ‘objective facts’, but the repetition of the argument made a decade before by Rosa Luxemburg against Kautsky: those who wait for the objective conditions of the revolution to arrive will wait forever – such a position of the objective observer (and not of an engaged agent) is itself the main obstacle to the revolution. Lenin’s counter-argument against the formal-democratic critics of the second step is that this ‘pure democratic’ option itself is utopian: in the concrete Russian circumstances, the bourgeois-democratic state has no chances of surviving – the only ‘realistic’ way to protect the true gains of the February Revolution (freedom of organisation and the press, etc) is to move forward to the socialist revolution – otherwise the Tsarist reaction will win.
We have here two models, two incompatible logics, of the revolution: those who wait for the ripe teleological moment of the final crisis when revolution will explode ‘at its own proper time’ by the necessity of historical evolution; and those who are aware that revolution has no ‘proper time’, those who perceive the revolutionary chance as something that emerges and has to be seized in the very detours of ‘normal’ historical development. Lenin is not a voluntarist ‘subjectivist’ – what he insists on is that the exception (the extraordinary set of circumstances, like those in Russia in 1917) offers a way to undermine the norm itself. And is this line of argument, this fundamental stance, not more actual today than ever? Do we not also live in an era when the state and its apparatus, inclusive of its political agents, are simply less and less able to articulate the key issues (ecology, degrading healthcare, poverty, the role of multinational companies, etc.)? The only logical conclusion is that a new form of politicisation is urgent, which will directly ‘socialise’ these crucial issues. The illusion of 1917 that the pressing problems which faced Russia (peace, land distribution, etc.) could have been solved through ‘legal’ parliamentary means is the same as today’s illusion that, say, the ecological threat could be avoided by way of expanding the market logic to ecology (making the polluters pay the price for the damage they cause). However, how relevant are Lenin’s specific insights here? According to orthodox thinking, Lenin’s declining faith in the creative capacities of the masses in the years after the October Revolution led him to emphasise the role of science and the scientists, to rely on the authority of the expert. He hailed ‘the beginning of that very happy time when politics will recede into the background ... and engineers and agronomists will do most of the talking’.  Technocratic post-politics? Lenin’s ideas about how the road to socialism runs through the terrain of monopoly capitalism may appear dangerously naive today:
Capitalism has created an accounting apparatus in the shape of the banks, syndicates, postal service, consumers’ societies, and office employees’ unions. Without big banks socialism would be impossible ... our task is here merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive ... This will be country-wide book-keeping, country-wide accounting of the production and distribution of goods; this will be, so to speak, something in the nature of the skeleton of socialist society. 
Is this not the most radical expression of Marx’s notion of the general intellect regulating all social life in a transparent way, of the post-political world in which ‘administration of people’ is supplanted by ‘administration of things’? It is, of course, easy to play against this quote the tune of the ‘critique of instrumental reason’ and ‘administered world [verwaltete Welt]’. The ‘totalitarian’ potential is inscribed in this very form of total social control. It is easy to remark sarcastically how, in the Stalinist epoch, the apparatus of social administration effectively became ‘even bigger’. Furthermore, is this post-political vision not the very opposite of the Maoist notion of the eternity of the class struggle (‘everything is political’)?
Are things really so unambiguous, however? What if one replaces the (obviously dated) example of the central bank with the world wide web, today’s perfect candidate for the General Intellect? Dorothy Sayers claimed that Aristotle’s Poetics is effectively the theory of detective novels before they were written – since the poor Aristotle didn’t yet know of the detective novel, he had to refer to the only examples at his disposal, the tragedies ... Along the same lines, Lenin was effectively developing the theory of the role of the world wide web, but, since the web was unknown to him, he had to refer to the unfortunate central banks. Consequently, can one also say that ‘without the world wide web socialism would be impossible ... our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive’? In these conditions, one is tempted to resuscitate the old, opprobrious and half forgotten Marxian dialectics of the productive forces and the relations of production. It is already commonplace to claim that, ironically, it was these very dialectics which buried ‘really existing socialism’: socialism was not able to sustain the passage from industrial to post-industrial economy. One of the tragi-comic victims of the disintegration of socialism in ex-Yugoslavia was an old Communist apparatchik interviewed by Ljubljana student radio in 1988. Communists knew they were losing power, so they desperately tried to please everyone. When this old cadre was asked provocative questions about his sex life by the student reporters, he also desperately tried to prove that he was in touch with the young generation. Since, however, the only language he knew was wooden bureaucratese, the result was an uncanny obscene mixture – statements like, ‘Sexuality is an important component of my daily activity. Touching my wife between her thighs gives me great new incentives for my work of building socialism.’ And when one reads East German official documents from the 1970s and early 1980s, formulating their project of turning the GDR into a kind of Silicon Valley of the Eastern European Socialist bloc, one cannot avoid the impression of the same tragi-comic gap between form and content. While they were fully aware that digitalisation was the way of the future, they approached it in the terms of the old socialist logic of industrial central planning – their very words betrayed the fact that they were not getting what is effectively going on, the social consequences of digitalisation. However, does capitalism really provide the ‘natural’ frame of the relations of production for the digital universe? Is there not also an explosive potential for capitalism itself in the world wide web? Is not the lesson of the Microsoft monopoly precisely the Leninist one: instead of fighting its monopoly through the state apparatus (recall the court-ordered split of the Microsoft corporation), would it not be more ‘logical’ just to socialise it, rendering it freely accessible? Today one is thus tempted to paraphrase Lenin’s well-known motto, ‘Socialism = electrification + the power of the soviets’: ‘Socialism = free access to internet + the power of the soviets.’
In this context, the myth to be debunked is that of the diminishing role of the state. What we are witnessing today is the shift in its functions: while partially withdrawing from its welfare functions, the state is strengthening its apparatus in other domains of social regulation. In order to start a business now one has to rely on the state to guarantee not only law and order, but the entire infrastructure (access to water and energy, means of transportation, ecological criteria, international regulations, etc.), to an incomparably larger extent than 100 years ago. Last year’s electricity supply debacle in California makes this point palpable: for a couple of weeks in January and February 2001 the privatisation (‘deregulation’) of the electricity supply changed Southern California, one of the most highly developed ‘post-industrial’ landscapes in the entire world, into a Third World country with regular blackouts. Of course, the defenders of deregulation claimed that it was not thorough enough, thereby engaging in the old false syllogism of, ‘My fiancée is never late for the appointment, because the moment she is late, she is no longer my fiancée’: deregulation by definition works, so if it doesn’t work, it wasn’t truly deregulation ... Does the recent mad cow disease panic (which probably presages dozens of similar phenomena which await us in the near future) also not point towards the need for a strict state and global institutionalised control of agriculture?
So what about the basic reproach according to which Lenin is irrelevant for us today because he remained stuck within the horizon of industrial mass production (recall his celebration of Fordism)? How does the passage from factory production to ‘post-industrial’ production change these co-ordinates? How are we to situate not only the Third World manual labour sweatshops, but the digital sweatshops, like the one in Bangalore in which tens of thousands of Indians are programming software for Western corporations? Is it adequate to designate these Indians as the ‘intellectual proletariat’? Will they be the final revenge of the Third World? What are the consequences of the (for the conservative Germans, at least) unsettling fact that, after decades of importing hundreds of thousands of manual immigrant workers, Germany has now discovered that it needs at least tens of thousands of intellectual immigrant workers, mostly computer programmers? The disabling alternative of today’s Marxism is, what to do apropos of this growing importance of ‘immaterial production’ today (cyber-workers)? Do we insist that only those involved in ‘real’ material production are the working class, or do we accomplish the fateful step of accepting that the ‘symbolic workers’ are the (true) proletarians today? One should resist this step, because it obfuscates the division between immaterial and material production, the split in the working class between (as a rule geographically separated) cyber-workers and material workers (programmers in the US or India, the sweatshops in China or Indonesia).
Perhaps it is the figure of the unemployed who stands for the pure proletarian today: the unemployed’s substantial determination remains that of a worker, but they are prevented from actualising it or from renouncing it, so they remain suspended in the potentiality of workers who cannot work. Perhaps we are today in a sense ‘all jobless’ – jobs tend to be more and more based on short term contracts, so that the jobless state is the rule, the zero level, and the temporary job the exception. This, then, should also be the answer to the advocates of ‘post-industrial society’ whose message to workers is that their time is over, that their very existence is obsolete, and that all they can count on is purely humanitarian compassion – there is less and less place for workers in the universe of today’s capital, and one should draw the only consistent conclusion from this fact. If today’s ‘post-industrial’ society needs fewer and fewer workers to reproduce itself (20 percent of the workforce, on some accounts), then it is not workers who are in excess, but capital itself.
The key antagonism of the so called new (digital) industries is thus: how to maintain the form of (private) property, within which only the logic of profit can be maintained (see also the Napster problem, the free circulation of music)? And do the legal complications in biogenetics not point in the same direction? The key element of the new international trade agreements is the ‘protection of intellectual property’ – whenever, in a merger, a big Western company takes over a Third World company, the first thing they do is close down the research department. Phenomena emerge here which involve the notion of property in extraordinary dialectical paradoxes: in India, local communities suddenly discover that medical practices and materials they have been using for centuries are now owned by American companies, so they should be bought from them; with the biogenetic companies patenting genes, we are all discovering that parts of ourselves, our genetic components, are already copyrighted, owned by others.
However, the outcome of this crisis of private property of the means of production is by no means guaranteed – it is here that one should take into account the ultimate paradox of Stalinist society. Against the capitalism which is the class society, but in principle egalitarian, without direct hierarchical divisions, ‘mature’ Stalinism is a classless society articulated in precisely defined hierarchical groups (top nomenklatura, technical workers, army, etc.). What this means is that, already for Stalinism, the classic Marxist notion of the class struggle is no longer adequate to describe its hierarchy and domination – in the Soviet Union from the late 1920s onwards the key social division was not defined by property, but by direct access to power mechanisms and to privileged material and cultural conditions of life (food, accommodation, healthcare, freedom of travel, education). And perhaps the ultimate irony of history will be that, in the same way, Lenin’s vision of ‘central bank socialism’ can be properly read only retroactively, from today’s world wide web. The Soviet Union provided the first model of the developed ‘post-property’ society, of the true ‘late capitalism’ in which the ruling class will be defined by direct access to the (informational, administrative) means of social power and control and to other material and social privileges: the point will no longer be to own companies, but directly to run them, to have the right to use a private jet, to have access to top healthcare, etc. – privileges which will be acquired not by property, but by other mechanisms (educational, managerial, etc.).
This, then, is the forthcoming crisis which will offer the perspective of a new emancipatory struggle, of the thorough reinvention of the political – not the old Marxist choice between private property and its socialisation, but the choice between the hierarchical and egalitarian post-property society. Here the old Marxist thesis on how bourgeois freedom and equality are based on private property and market conditions acquires an unexpected twist: what market relations enable are (at least) ‘formal’ freedom and ‘legal’ equality – since social hierarchy can be sustained through property, there is no need for its direct political assertion. If, then, the role of private property is diminishing, the danger is that this gradual vanishing will create the need for some new (racist or expert-rule) form of hierarchy, directly founded on individuals’ properties, and thus cancelling even ‘formal’ bourgeois equality and freedom. In short, in so far as the determining factor of social power will be the inclusion/exclusion from the privileged set (of access to knowledge, control, etc.), we can expect the rise of the different modes of exclusion, up to direct racism. The first clear sign which points in this direction is the new alliance between politics (government) and natural sciences. In the newly emerging biopolitics, the government is instigating ‘embryo industry’, the control over our genetic legacy outside democratic control, justified by an offer no one can refuse: ‘Don’t you want to be cured of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s ...?’ However, while politicians are making such ‘scientific’ promises, scientists themselves remain deeply sceptical, often emphasising the need for decisions reached through a large social consensus.
The ultimate problem of genetic engineering does not reside in its unpredictable consequences (what if we create monsters – say, humans with no sense of moral responsibility?), but in the way biogenetic engineering fundamentally affects our notion of education: instead of educating a child to be a good musician, will it be possible to manipulate his genes so that he will be ‘spontaneously’ inclined towards music? Instead of instilling in him a sense of discipline, will it be possible to manipulate his genes so that he will ‘spontaneously’ tend to obey orders? The situation is here radically open – if two classes of people will gradually emerge, the ‘naturally born’ ones and the genetically manipulated ones, it is not even clear in advance which class will occupy the higher level in social hierarchy. Will the ‘naturals’ consider the manipulated ones as mere tools, not truly free beings, or will the much more perfect manipulated ones consider ‘naturals’ as belonging to a lower level of evolution?
The forthcoming struggle thus has no guaranteed outcome – it will confront us with an unheard-of urgency to act, since it will concern not only a new mode of production, but a radical rupture in what it means to be a human being. Today we can already discern the signs of a kind of general unease – recall the series of events usually listed under the name of ‘Seattle’. The ten-year honeymoon of triumphant global capitalism is over, the long overdue ‘seven year itch’ is here – witness the panicky reactions of the big media, which, from Time magazine to CNN, all of a sudden started to warn about Marxists manipulating the crowd of ‘honest’ protesters. The problem is now the strictly Leninist one – how to actualise the media’s accusations, how to invent the organisational structure which will confer on this unrest the form of the universal political demand. Otherwise the momentum will be lost, and what will remain is marginal disturbance, perhaps organised as a new Greenpeace, with a certain efficiency, but also strictly limited goals, marketing strategy, etc. In other words, the key ‘Leninist’ lesson today is that politics without the organisational form of the party is politics without politics, so the answer to those who want just the (quite adequately named) ‘new social movements’ is the same as the answer of the Jacobins to the Girondin compromisers: ‘You want revolution without a revolution!’ Today’s obstacle is that there seem to be only two ways open for socio-political engagement: either play the game of the system, engage in the ‘long march through the institutions’, or get active in new social movements, from feminism through ecology to anti-racism. And again the limit of these movements is that they are not political in the sense of the Universal Singular; they are ‘single-issue movements’ which lack the dimension of universality, ie they do not relate to the social totality.
The promise of the ‘Seattle’ movement resides in the fact that it is the very opposite of its usual media designation (the ‘anti-globalisation protest’); it is the first kernel of a new global movement, global with regard to its content (it aims at a global confrontation with today’s capitalism) as well as to its form (it is a global movement, involving a mobile international network, able to react from Seattle to Prague). It is more global than ‘global capitalism’, since it brings into the game its victims, i.e. those excluded by capitalist globalisation. Perhaps one should take the risk and apply Hegel’s old distinction between ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ universality here: the capitalist globalisation is ‘abstract’, focused on the speculative movement of capital, while the ‘Seattle’ movement stands for ‘concrete universality’, i.e. for the totality of global capitalism and its excluded dark side.
Here Lenin’s reproach to liberals is crucial: they only exploit the working classes’ discontent to strengthen their position vis-à-vis the conservatives, instead of identifying with it to the end.  Is this not also the case with today’s left liberals? They like to evoke racism, ecology, workers’ grievances, etc., to score points over the conservatives without endangering the system. Recall how, in Seattle, Bill Clinton himself deftly referred to the protesters on the streets outside, reminding the gathered leaders inside the guarded palaces that they should listen to the message of the demonstrators (the message which, of course, Clinton interpreted, depriving it of its subversive sting attributed to the dangerous extremists introducing chaos and violence into the majority of peaceful protesters). This Clintonesque stance later developed into an elaborated ‘carrot and stick’ strategy of containment: on the one hand, paranoia (the notion that there is a dark Marxist plot lurking behind); on the other hand, in Genoa, none other than Berlusconi provided food and shelter to the anti-globalisation demonstrators – on condition that they ‘behaved properly’ and didn’t disturb the official event. It’s the same with all new social movements, up to the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Systemic politics is always ready to ‘listen to their demands’, depriving them of their proper political sting. The true ‘third way’ we have to look for is this third way between institutionalised parliamentary politics and the new social movements.
As a sign of this emerging uneasiness and need for a true third way, it is interesting to see how, in a recent interview, even a conservative liberal like John le Carré had to admit that, as a consequence of the ‘love affair between Thatcher and Reagan’, in most of the developed Western countries and especially in the United Kingdom ‘the social infrastructure has practically stopped working’, which then leads him to make a direct plea for, at least, ‘renationalising the railways and water’.  We are effectively approaching a state in which (selective) private affluence is accompanied by the global (ecological, infrastructural) degradation which will soon start to affect us all: the quality of water is a problem not only in the UK – a recent survey showed that the entire basin out of which the Los Angeles area draws its water is already so affected by man-made toxic chemicals that it will soon be impossible to render it drinkable, even through the use of the most advanced filters. Le Carré formulated his fury at Blair for accepting the Thatcherite basic co-ordinates in very precise terms: ‘I thought last time, in 1997, that he was lying when he denied he was a socialist. The worst thing I can say about him is that he was telling the truth’.  More precisely, even if, in 1997, Blair was ‘subjectively’ lying, even if his secret agenda was to save whatever is possible of the socialist agenda, he was ‘objectively’ telling the truth: his (eventual) subjective socialist conviction was a self deception, an illusion which enabled him to fulfil his ‘objective’ role, that of finishing the Thatcherite ‘revolution’.
The ultimate answer to the reproach that the radical left’s proposals are utopian should thus be that today the true utopia is the belief that the present liberal-democratic capitalist consensus could go on indefinitely, without radical changes. We are thus back at the old 1968 motto ‘Soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible!’ (‘Be realistic – demand the impossible!’): in order to be truly a ‘realist’, one must consider breaking out of the constraints of what appears ‘possible’ (or, as we usually term it, ‘feasible’). If there is a lesson to be learned from Silvio Berlusconi’s electoral victory in May 2001, it is that the true utopians are the Third Way leftists – why? The main temptation to be avoided apropos Berlusconi’s victory in Italy is to use it as a pretext for yet another exercise in the tradition of the conservative-leftist Kulturkritik (from Adorno to Virilio), which bemoans the stupidity of the manipulated masses, and the eclipse of the autonomous individual capable of critical reflection. This, however, does not mean that the consequences of this victory are to be underestimated. Hegel said that all historical events have to happen twice: Napoleon had to lose twice, etc. And it seems that Berlusconi also had to win the election twice for us to become aware of the full consequences of this event.
So what did Berlusconi achieve? His victory provides a sad lesson about the role of morality in politics: the ultimate outcome of the great moral-political catharsis – the anti-corruption campaign of ‘clean hands’ which, a decade ago, ruined Christian Democracy and with it the ideological polarity of Christian Democrats and Communists which dominated post-war Italian politics – is Berlusconi in power. It is something like Rupert Murdoch winning the British elections – a political movement run as a business-publicity enterprise. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is no longer a political party, but – as its name indicates – rather a sports fan club. If, in the good old Socialist countries, sport was directly politicised (recall the enormous investments that the GDR put into its top athletes), now politics itself is turned into a sports contest. And the parallel goes even further: if the Communist regimes were nationalising the industry, Berlusconi is in a way privatising the state itself. For this reason, all the worry of the leftists and liberal democrats about the danger of neo-fascism lurking beneath Berlusconi’s victory is misplaced and in a way much too optimistic: fascism is still a determinate political project, while, in the case of Berlusconi, there is ultimately nothing lurking beneath, no secret ideological project, just the sheer assurance that things will function, that we shall do it better. In short, Berlusconi is post-politics at its purest. The ultimate sign of ‘post-politics’ in all Western countries is the growth of a managerial approach to government. Government is reconceived as a managerial function, deprived of its properly political dimension.
The true stake of today’s political struggles is, which of the old two main parties, conservatives or the ‘moderate left’, will succeed in presenting itself as truly embodying the post-ideological spirit, against the other party dismissed as ‘still caught in the old ideological spectres’? If the 1980s belonged to the conservatives, the lesson of the 1990s seemed to be that, in our late capitalist societies, Third Way social democracy (or, even more pointedly, post-Communists in the ex-Socialist countries) effectively functions as the representative of capital as such, in general, against its particular factions represented by the different ‘conservative’ parties which, in order to present themselves as addressing the entire population, also try to satisfy the particular demands of the anti-capitalist strata (say, of the domestic ‘patriotic’ middle class workers threatened by the cheap labour of immigrants. Recall the CDU, which, against the Social Democratic proposal that Germany should import 50,000 Indian computer programmers, launched the infamous motto ‘Kinder statt Inder!’ – ‘Children instead of Indians!’) This economic constellation explains to a good degree how and why the Third Way social democrats can simultaneously stand for the interests of big capital and for multiculturalist tolerance which aims at protecting the interests of the foreign minorities.
The Third Way dream of the left was that the pact with the devil may work out: okay, no revolution, we accept capitalism as the only game in town, but at least we will be able to save some of the achievements of the welfare state, plus build a society tolerant towards sexual, religious, and ethnic minorities. If the trend announced by Berlusconi’s victory persists, a much darker prospect is discernible on the horizon: a world in which the unlimited rule of capital is not supplemented by left-liberal tolerance, but by the typical post-political mixture of pure publicity-seeking spectacle and Moral Majority concerns (remember that the Vatican gave its tacit support to Berlusconi). If there is a hidden ideological agenda of Berlusconi’s ‘post-politics’, it is, to put it bluntly, the disintegration of the fundamental post Second World War democratic pact. In recent years, there were already numerous signs of the post Second World War anti-fascist pact slowly cracking – from ‘revisionist’ historians to the New Right populists, so called ‘taboos’ are falling down. Paradoxically, those who undermine this pact refer to the very liberal universalised logic of victimisation: sure, there were victims of fascism, but what about other victims of the post Second World War expulsions? What about the Germans evicted from their homes in Czechoslovakia? Do they not also have some right to (financial) compensation?
The immediate future does not belong to outright rightist provocateurs like Le Pen or Pat Buchanan, but to people like Berlusconi and Haider, these advocates of global capital in the wolves’ clothes of populist nationalism. The struggle between them and the Third Way left is the struggle about who will be more effective in counteracting the excesses of global capitalism – Third Way multiculturalist tolerance or populist homophobia. Will this boring alternative be Europe’s answer to globalisation? Berlusconi is thus post-politics at its worst; even The Economist, the staunch voice of anti-left liberalism, was accused by Berlusconi of being part of a ‘communist plot’, when it asked some critical questions about how a person convicted of crimes could become the prime minister! What this means is that, for Berlusconi, all opposition to his post-politics is rooted in a ‘communist plot’. And in a way he is right – this is the only true opposition. All others – liberals or Third Way leftists – are basically playing the same game as him, only with different coating. And the hope must be that Berlusconi will also be right with regard to the second aspect of his paranoiac cognitive mapping – that his victory will give an impetus to the real radical left.
1. Quoted from N. Harding, Leninism (Durham 1996), p. 168.
2. Ibid., p. 146.
3. I owe this point to Alan Shandro’s contribution, Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony, at the symposium The Retrieval of Lenin, Essen, 2–4 February 2001.
4. John le Carré, My Vote? I Would Like to Punish Blair, interview with David Hare in The Daily Telegraph, 17 May 2001, p. 23.
Last updated on 21.6.2012