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Does it mean anything to be a Leninist in 2001?

by Doug Henwood

delivered at the conference "Towards a Politics of Truth: The Retrieval of Lenin," Essen, Germany, February 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 fatal.

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 about.

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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