Doug Henwood on 10 Feb 2001 18:50:03 -0000

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<nettime> Lenin in Essen

[Geert Lovink asked me to post this, the text of the talk I gave at 
the Lenin conference in Essen organized by Slavoj Zizek.]

Does it mean anything to be a Leninist in 2001?
Doug Henwood

(for the conference Towards a Politics of Truth: The Retrieval of 
Lenin, Essen, Germany, Feburary 4, 2001)

Please forgive me for reading my contribution this way [from the 
screen of a PowerBook]. It's not, I swear, a symptom of American 
techno-fetishism; it's a symptom of having written this at the last 
minute, having applied the last keystroke at precisely 9:34 this 
morning, with no printer to transform electronic text into the 
physical. Further proof, I guess, that we are all immaterial laborers 
these days, so that even our texts are virtual -- though when I was 
wandering around a couple of stories down yesterday afternoon, I was 
amazed to see exhibits devoted to basic manufacturing technology. 
Maybe this is just a bit of Old World quaintness, but actually I 
think this whole immaterial thing is overdone. But that's another 
topic entirely.

Further confessions of inadequacy. Another reason or two for last 
minuteness, aside from neurotic procrastination, is that I felt 
somewhat intimidated by the gathering -- a journalist, a vulgar 
empiricist, amidst theoreticians, I wondered what really I had to 
say. But it wasn't just a feeling of professional inadequacy. I was 
asked to provide a title for this about two months ago; I chose the 
question, "Does it mean anything to be a Leninist in 2001?" I really 
had no idea of an answer then, but was convinced I'd come up with 
something in the intervening eight weeks. I'm not sure I have, even 
though most of this conference is now behind us.

One reason I picked the title is that over the years I've asked 
self-identified Leninists for their definition, and I can't say I've 
gotten a memorable answer yet -- one, that is, that isn't a mere 
literal transposition of Lenin's own writings into the present, like 
some case of ideological time travelling. I just don't see how much 
of a revolutionary doctrine -- or a set of doctrines given Lenin's 
flexibility (if you like him) or opportunism (if you don't) -- 
devised for a lightly industrialized, semiperipheral monarchy 
afflicted by fairly strict censorship and a secret police is relevant 
to highly industrialized metropoles where censorship and the police 
operate in much more subtle, often unconscious ways.

I've heard some efforts at definition over the last couple of days. 
One set of suggestions held that Lenin serves as a reminder of the 
centrality of politics, the crucial importance of a good analysis, 
and the indespensibility of The Party (capital P, I'm assuming). The 
first two seem fairly obvious to me, and so general that Margaret 
Thatcher or the people who thought for Ronald Reagan would have 
assented to.

(Speaking of poltiical figures, I bring some news from the U.S.: we 
have a new president, George W. Bush. In Washington, the Third Way is 
history, to use our curiously American way of consigning something to 
insignificance. He reads the Bible, not Anthony Giddens; thinks that 
churches should replace the state as service provider to the poor; 
and speaks only the language of national self-interest, not 
humanitarianism, to justify imperial adventure.)

Back to Lenin's relevance. The last factor, the centrality of The 
Party, just seems like a dead idea to me. Like it or not, the notion 
of a vanguard party on the Leninist model, operating on 
quasi-military principles of discipline and hierarchy, has less than 
zero appeal to all but a handful of relics today. It is, I'm fairly 
certain, beyond any hope of revival. To speak that language today to 
an audience not already in basic sympathy to your program is to 
condemn yourself to irrelevance.

So much for the Leninist style of politics. There is also the matter 
of Lenin as icon, the successful revolutionary who keeps alive the 
possibility of revolution today. I'm susceptible to this appeal; I 
even have a picture of Lenin up in my kitchen. He is a great image, 
there's no denying. But again, I doubt the breadth of that appeal. 
The other week I asked a friend of mine who is a professor of English 
at a major U.S. university, whose allegiance to Marxism has almost 
certainly hurt his career, what he thought of Lenin. His answer was 
that he was a philosophical cretin and a political gangster. I'm sure 
almost everyone in this room would disagree with this 
characterization -- but if you get this kind of response from a 
Marxist intellectual, I'd say Lenin's image problem borders on the 

I'm certainly not endorsing this view of Lenin, but in politics you 
have to work with the hand you've been dealt, and Lenin's face isn't 
even in the deck these days. A more possible project might be the 
retrieval of Marx, a topic I'll return to a bit later. I have to 
dissent from Slavoj Zizek's picture of the Old Man's growing 
respectability, at least from my experience in the U.S. Aside from a 
handful of universities, Marxism has disappeared from U.S. economics 
departments. In fact, I know of only one Marxist who's been hired by 
a major U.S. department in the last 20 years -- John Roemer by Yale, 
and that was a joint appointment with political science, and it was 
poli sci that was the driving force behind the hire. Yes, things are 
a bit better in the humanities, but many of my friends in the Marxist 
Literary Group have severe publication and employment problems. And 
there are very few Marx-o-philes on Wall Street. I know of one 
exception, though I think he's rather paranoid about having this be 
known: Bruce Steinberg, the chief economist of Merrill Lynch. 
Steinberg was on the editorial board of the Review of Radical 
Pollitical Economics about 20 years ago, and has been heard saying 
that his study of Marx helped him immensely. I strongly suspect he 
was the unnamed Wall Streeter who was quoted in John Cassidy's 
article on the Marx revival in The New Yorker in October 1997. But 
that's about it. My own Marxist book on Wall Street -- though our 
friends the Sparts will dispute its Marxism -- was received mainly 
with silence by financiers, though the financial weekly Barron's 
described it as "loopy" and "repellent," a member of the business 
staff of the Los Angeles Times characterized it as mapping out the 
road to the gulag (of course), and some years ago, the former 
executive editor of the Wall Street Journal told me I am "sick and 
twisted" and added that it's tragic that I exist. But that's Wall 
Street. Cassidy's article in the New Yorker, the exuberant reception 
for Verso's latte table edition of The Communist Manifesto (to steal 
Alex Cockburn's characterization of it), and several other pieces in 
the press suggest a broader willingness to listen to Marx, now that 
memories of the USSR are fading and the moment of capitalist 
triumphalism is starting to feel hollow, even false and forced.

Aside from media evidence, my own experience of talking to popular 
audiences in the U.S. has been that people are quite willing to 
listen to a Marxian analysis, especially if they don't know that's 
what they're hearing -- and that younger audiences don't even have 
any problem with the name. With Lenin's name, though, they most 
certainly do.

OK, what about Lenin as a political analyst? The essay on imperialism 
has come up a lot here, and it so happens that I just reacquainted 
myself with it, after a long separation, to prepare for this 
conference. It's certainly of great historical interest. But 
unfortunately, too many self-identified Leninists take it and apply 
it unmodified as an analytical template for today. That just won't 
do. One very serious problem is the prominence of Hilferding's 
analysis of finance capital, a book that has long afflicted Marxian 
analyses of finance in general. First, let me start with the achingly 
obvious: the era of high colonialism is over. Right now, Kautsky's 
ultra-imperialism seems a like a not-bad characterization of the 
world in the early 21st century, even if he was very wrong about the 
early 20th century. Yes, there are contradictions in the system; yes, 
there are rivalries among the major imperialist powers; yes, the 
three metropoles, the U.S., the EU, and Japan, each have their own 
geographic spheres of particular influence. But conceding all that, 
it's amazing how peaceful the coexistence is among the imperial 
powers. The members of the EU fought among themselves over who would 
be the first head of the European Central Bank, but they ended up 
with a nominee. The major powers fought over who would head the WTO 
and the IMF, but they ended up with nominees. The U.S. is the major 
investor in Latin America, but the EU is the major investor in Brazil 
and Argentina, yet all parties pretty much get along. The U.S. is in 
the process of economically annexing Mexico, but you'll find Sony and 
Volkswagen plants operating happily there. Maybe this comity won't 
last forever; maybe they will come to blows someday. After all, 
Keynes wrote in The Economic Consequences of the Peace that an upper 
class Londoner of around 1910, regarded the then-prevailing freedom 
of trade and capital flows -- freer by many measures than the 
present, I should add -- as "normal, certain, and permanent, except 
in the direction of improvement, and any deviation from it as 
aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of 
militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of 
monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the 
serpent to this paradise, were litle more than the amusements of his 
daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all 
on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the 
internationalization of which was nearly complete in practice." Maybe 
there's a serpent waiting to pounce sometime in the future, but not 
right now. Right now it sure looks like a truly global ruling class 
is constituting itself through public institutions like the IMF and 
private ones like the Davos World Economic Forums.

And then there's the stuff about cartels and banks. I often hear 
self-described Leninists apply these concepts to the present with 
almost no modification. The word "monopoly" is thrown around, as if 
J.P. Morgan were still walking the earth. First, cartels. For the 
last 20 years, it's been the policy of many governments around the 
world to promote competition, though deregulation and the dismantling 
of import barriers. The executive committee of the bourgeoisie 
realized that the comfy world of the 1950s and 1960s, the one 
described with some admiration by Galbraith and with considerable 
hostility by Baran and Sweezy, had led to systemic sclerosis. Nor is 
there any compelling evidence of a trend towards monopoly. A study of 
20 industrial sectors published last summer in the Harvard Business 
Review found increased concentration of market share in only one, 
semiconductors. All others saw a decline or no change. It also found 
that cross-border mergers imparted no competitive advantage on the 
new entities, a result confirmed by other studies showing that 
multinationals are no more profitable than domestic firms. To 
complicate the picture even further, contrary to Lenin's assertion 
that profits are higher in poor countries, data on U.S. 
multinationals shows returns on Latin American investments to be 
lower than those in Canada or Western Europe, and returns in Taiwan 
to be higher than those in China. Moreover, over two-thirds of the 
total stock of U.S. foreign direct investment is in countries with 
incomes roughly comparable to the home country's. Throw in the four 
classic Asian Tigers and you've got over three-quarters of the total. 
I'm not sure what this all means theoretically, but it does suggest 
that some serious rethinking of received wisdom -- received wisdom to 
which Lenin's Imperialism contributed no small amount -- is in order.

And, as for the banks, well, to quote the Velvet Underground, those 
were different times. Lenin, following Hilferding, declared that the 
stock exchange was an institution in serious decline. It's not. In 
the U.S., the power of stockholders has grown enormously over the 
last 20 years, and other countries are following suit. One of the 
vastly underappreciated aspects of the euro project is to create more 
U.S.-style financial markets, and to weaken the hold of German-style 
bank ownership. The point is to expose companies to the constant 
public discipline of profit maximization. Lenin also said that 
company accounts were getting incrasingly murky, in order to hide all 
kinds of self-dealing and other financial chicanery. While there are 
some exceptions, this is hardly an accurate description of the 
present, when "transparency" is all the rage. Part of the IMF's 
restructuring package for Asia involved the adoption of U.S.-style 
accounting methods, meaning far more accurate public disclosure of 
balance sheets and income statements. Stock market disciplines won't 
work if the books are utterly fictional.

There's been a lot of talk about Hardt and Negri's Emipre over the 
last couple of days. I've only begun to think about the book, but 
there's a lot to think about in it. I think they overdo the assertion 
that today's Empire has no Rome -- Washington, Wall Street, and 
Hollywood are a lot more central to the structure than they allow -- 
but their point about the dispersion of power in the new order is 
absolutely right, I think. Empire today is a much more collective and 
dispersed affair than it was in Lenin's day, what with the UN and 
NATO acting the part of imperial enforcers, and stock markets 
arranging ownership and discipline. No the nation - state isn't dead 
and yes financial power is still concentrated -- but too much 
attention to Lenin will only confuse us.

OK, having doubted the relevance of Lenin for the last 2,000-some 
words, I'll now invoke the cliched Leninist question -- what is to be 
done? I wish I had a good answer, or even several approximations of 
the beginning of an answer. Certainly the state of official electoral 
politics everywhere is dismal. European leftists can kvetch about the 
Third Way, but we've just inauguarted a reactionary moron who didn't 
really even win the election. It's almost enough to make me nostalgic 
for Bill Clinton.

But outside the electoral realm, there are some very exciting newish 
political movements, for which "Seattle" has become the shorthand. I 
understand there's quite a dispute going on between the British 
Socialist Workers Party and its U.S. subsidiary, the International 
Socialist Organization, on just what these movements are all about, 
with the SWP calling them anticapitalist, and the ISO calling them 
anticorporate. In part this may be a geographical difference. I've 
noticed that the European press uses the word anticapitalist to 
describe them. The U.S. press calls the demonstrators anticorporate 
or antiglobalization, both because they can't even imagine how anyone 
could object to capitalism, and because we don't have much of a 
native strain of anticapitalism in our political tradition, but we do 
have a populist, petit bourgeois, small business one.

All these names, you'll notice, begin with anti-, which suggests that 
they've got a pretty good idea of what they're against, and a much 
vaguer idea of what they're for. That criticism has been made here, 
and its truth has to be conceded. But after 20 or 25 years of 
political torpor, this is some serious progress.

I said "Seattle" is the shorthand for these movements, but they 
weren't born there. You can trace them back at least a few years 
earlier. There was the worldwide mobilization against the 
Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which was being negotiated in 
effective secrecy by the major powers -- until a draft text of the 
treaty was leaked and posted on the web. Within weeks, an anti-MAI 
movement, formed in large part through websites and email lists, was 
formed, and not all that much later, the MAI talks collapsed. Part of 
the problem was that the major powers had some differences among 
themselves, but the popular movement contributed a lot to the failure.

Then there were the coordinated worldwide demonstrations around the 
G-7 summit on June 18, 1999. Time was that almost no one paid serious 
attention to these summits, but J18 was marked by scores of protests 
from New York to Nairobi. The front page of the Financial Times 
carried an inspiring picture of a shirtless protester hurling a rock 
at some cops; the City of London was effectively shut for the day.

Then, of course, there was Seattle. There was a lot that was unique 
and irreproducible about that event. For one, the authorities were 
caught off guard; for two, it's a liberal city whose government 
wanted to be as tolerant of protest as possible; and for three, the 
local police just weren't up to the task. At the end of the protest 
week, I walked up to a group of cops and said, "I'm from New York, 
and believe me, this couldn't have happened there. The mayor would 
have surrounded the meeting site with 40,000 cops and no one but the 
delegates would have gotten close." One of the cops replied, "Yes, 
but the NYPD has lots of experience with crowd control. We don't."

A few months later, in Washington, DC, the cops were plenty prepared 
for the April 16 protests against the World Bank and the IMF -- but 
the meetings were still disrupted, and virtually the entire center of 
the city was shut down. But of more political importance, the Bank 
and the Fund had to junk their prepared agenda and instead talk 
unconvincingly about their deep concern for the world's poor. If 
hegemony consists in part of establishing the terms of discourse -- 
as they say in the opinion management business, we can't tell the 
public what to think, but we can tell them what to think about -- 
then something is happening here. We were telling them what to think 

I could list some more names: Melbourne, Davos, Porto Alegre, and,in 
two months, Quebec City. That kind of catalog would point out one of 
the risks of this movement -- that, in the words of the Canadian 
writer Naomi Klein, it runs the risk of devolving into serial 
protest. But since I'm trying to be more optimistic these days, I'll 
say it's not yet done that, because it's still a young movement, 
trying to find its feet.

Related to this movement is an explosion, over the last three years, 
in the level of political activism on U.S. campuses, most prominently 
the anti-sweatshop movemnt. (Anti- again, but it's having serious 
real world effects.) Maybe I'm a bit biased about this because I live 
with its leading journalistic chronicler, Liza Featherstone, but this 
is profoundly inspiring stuff. Here's an example of what it's up to. 
A few weeks ago, a South Korean-owned firm that does contract work 
for Nike fired some workers who were trying to organize an 
independent union. The students heard about it, and within days, they 
were on the scene in Mexico -- and at home, they started publicizing 
the fight. Just the other day, Nike, fearful of bad publicity, forced 
the Korean firm (whose managers had claimed that it was an acceptable 
form of labor discipline to hit lagging workers in the head with a 
hammer) to rehire the organizers. Maybe this is just temporary; maybe 
it's a PR coup that will soon be quietly undone. Maybe this is all 
too media driven; news that MTV is working on a special about 
"Revolution" confirms anxieties that the system is, in the words of 
Tom Frank and his colleagues at the Baffler magazine, commodifying 
our dissent. But better MTV is doing a special on revolution than on 
apathy. Again, we're telling them what to think about.

Time is running short, and it's time to start summing up. Some of the 
many exciting things about these movements is that they're global, 
they're fast, and they've had an impact. They couldn't exist without 
the technologies, like the web and the cell phone, that were only 
recently the stuff of capitalist triumphalism. Organizationally, 
they're flexible yet disciplined, serious yet good humored. Their 
structure has more to do with Spanish anarchism of the 1930s than 
with the Bolsheviks of 1917. Soon after I got back from Seattle, I 
was part of a panel reporting on the events to the New York City 
chapter of the Labor Party. After I was done, a voice arose from the 
audience to complain that what I was talking about sounded more like 
carnival than politics, and then it launched into what sounded like a 
computer-generated Leninist diatribe about imperialism. How 
especially odd it seemed to hear that; it was as if the speaker 
wasn't, as the doctors say, properly oriented in time and space. The 
kids wouldn't have listened to him for a second. And the carnival was 
absolutely wonderful, one of the greatest weeks of my life.

So is there a role for Marxist intellectuals in these new movements. 
Yes, absolutely, I'd say. It's true that they're theoretically 
unsophisticated (though Michael Hardt told me that some of the 
anti-sweathop activists at Duke, where the movement started in 1997, 
are really liking his class on Capital). Seattle, the new 
revolutionary icon, was ideologically a very mixed bag, with 
nationalist Steelworkers mingling with topless lesbians, petit 
bourgeois greens, and some unaffiliated socialists -- and the 
infamous black bloc of anarchists, who marched around chanting things 
like "Capitalism, no thanks/We will burn your fucking banks!" The new 
activists tend to focus on extreme abuses, like sweatshops, or on 
state institutions, like the IMF and WTO -- though it's easy to 
understand that institutional focus, because such institutions give 
Empire something like a home address. But in my experience of talking 
to the protesters (and I don't want to give the impression that 
they're all young, though they mostly are), they're extremely open to 
a radical analysis. The ISO has been spending a lot of time around 
the anti-sweatshop movement, and from what I'm told, the kids are 
grateful to hear a coherent analysis of how the parts of the system 
fit together, but they're extremely wary of furtive takeover 
attempts. Vanguardists have this distressing habit of trying to take 
over movements that they had no role in starting; I'm reminded of the 
American poet A.R. Ammon's line (which I'm quoting from memory, so I 
may not have it exactly right) that the way to look like a leader is 
to get in front of a moving crowd and start waving your arms. That's 
not very helpful, and it will give Marxism a very bad name at a 
moment when its prospects look better than they have in a very long 
time. Much better, it seems, would be for Marxist intellectuals to 
talk with the protesters, to engage them in conversation with some 
modesty and even a touch of awe.

A few months ago, I interviewed the Columbia University economics 
professor Jagdish Bhagwati for a piece I co-wrote on the 
anti-sweatshop movement that will appear imminently in the academic 
gossip magazine Lingua Franca. Bhagwati was very disturbed by the 
events in Seattle, and came back from there to organize his 
free-trading comrades into a protest group of their own, the Academic 
Consortium on International Trade. Bhagwati recalled a chat he had 
with a masked young woman in Seattle. He asked her if the mask 
signified she was a Zapatista. She said no, she's an anarchist. He 
just didn't know what to make of her, or the crowd she was part of, 
but he was quite unnerved. The ruling class is rather unnerved by 
this new generation of protest, and that can only be a good thing. 
I'm almost tempted -- especially given the lack of a female presence 
on this platform throughout this conference -- to nominate the 
anonymous masked woman as the Lenin of our time. That wouldn't be 
quite accurate, I know, but it's still mighty tempting.

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