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22 May 2018
As Darko Suvin says in an afterword to this book, when the 2nd International collapsed at the outbreak of the First World War, Lenin retreated to the library in Geneva where he read Hegel for three months, after which he analysed the world situation and, a couple of years later, went back to Russia to organise the October Revolution.
110 years earlier Hegel said of the Enlightenment Spirit that produced the French Revolution:
“Enlightenment upsets the household arrangements, which spirit carries out in the house of faith, by bringing in the goods and furnishings belonging to the world of here and now.”
The Enlightenment is the negative which “brings to light its own proper object, the ‘unknowable absolute Being’ and utility.” If Kant was right and “God” “unknowable” then whatever is divine essentially becomes privatised (as Marcuse, back in 1964, pointed out in One Dimensional Man, “spirituality” becomes commodified in the works of the guru of your “choice”). The absolute being becomes whatever produces the utilitarian “greatest happiness of the greatest number,” an idea which suits not only the ideologues of the free market, but also of state-capitalism in the forms of social democracy and Stalinism.
As Walter Benjamin put it,
“Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”
In post-Stalinist Russia, there are of course, few liberated grandchildren of the millions of people wiped out by Stalin's regime. But before Stalinism there was great positive energy in the Russian revolutionary experience. As Russia was largely a peasant society, dominated for centuries by the Church, landlordism, poverty, and rural mafias, “everyday life” was a turgid back water which needed revolutionising. Having overthrown the old order, under the slogan, “Peace, Land and Bread”, Lenin announced that “Socialism is Soviets plus Electricity”; a definite case of “bringing in the goods and furnishings belonging to the world of here and now..
Coiled Verbal Spring: Devices of Lenin's Language contains a selection of essays from 1924 by writers of the Left Front of the Arts (LEF), drawn from the schools of Futurism, Constructivism and Formalism. The editor, Sezgin Boynik, quotes the leading light of this group, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky:
“...the revolution cast the rugged idiom of the millions out on the streets; the slang of the outer suburbs flowed across the avenues in the city centre; the enervated burbling of the intelligentsia with their vocabulary of castrated words like 'ideal', 'principles of justice', the 'divine origin', the 'transcendental countenance of Christ and Anti-Christ' – all this kind of talk, once mouthed in the restaurants, has been wiped out. A new element of language has been liberated. How is it to be made poetic?”
Mayakovsky knew exactly how. He wrote an essay entitled How Verses are Made, which anyone who fancies themselves as a poet needs to read, and not because they'll necessarily find in it the encouragement they might be looking for. Mayakovsky generously lays out his trade secrets, but they are not for the faint-hearted. The true poet is a poet all the time, alert to the rhythms and sounds of everything that can be experienced, whether standing in the rain on Brooklyn Bridge, riding a rickety Moscow tramcar, making love, or dealing with the trauma of a comrade and fellow poet, namely Sergey Esenin, having committed suicide.
When Mayakovsky sent Lenin a poem he had published, entitled 150 Million, Lenin commented, “You know, this is a most interesting piece of work. A peculiar brand of communism. It is hooligan communism.” To be a communist poet is to heed what Mayakovsky calls the “social command.” A poet must renounce the “production of poetical trifles”, have “thorough knowledge of theoretical economics, a knowledge of the realities of everyday life, [and] an immersion in the scientific study of history...”
“To fulfil the social command as well as possible you must be in the vanguard of your class... You must smash to smithereens the myth of an apolitical art.”
Mayakovsky's identification with the “vanguard” was won in the harsh experience of revolution, famine and civil war. It is a far cry from the crazy logic of modern-day groupescules who think that, because their “line” on any given subject under heaven and beyond is more “correct” than that of any other groupescule, then they must be the vanguard.
Mayakovsky argues that “Poetry is a manufacture.” But, he warns, “You must not make manufacturing, the so-called technical process, an end in itself.”
There is thus a teleology in Mayakovsky's aesthetic. In this sense he is a follower of Lenin in the true sense of being a practising dialectician rather than a Lenin-ist. In 1924 he writes in protest against the canonisation of Lenin with mass-produced bronze statuettes and portraits. Mayakovsky does so because for him the Being of Lenin was, and remained, the Revolution. If you kill Lenin by making him into religious icon, you kill the Revolution by making a movement into a religion.
“Lenin is still our contemporary.
He is among the living.
We need him alive, not dead.
Learn from Lenin, but don't canonise him.
Don't create a cult around a man who fought cults his whole life.
Don't sell the objects of this cult.
Don't merchandise Lenin!”
What made the canonisation all the more deadly, was the fact that Lenin's legacy is ambivalent. As Darko Suvin points out, before Lenin read Hegel in 1914, his main philosophical contribution had been the notorious Materialism and Empirio-Criticism which “opened the door to a quite untenable theory of arts and sciences subjectively 'mirroring' and objectively reality, that is, to a mechanical materialism later warmly espoused by harmful Stalinist inquisitors into sciences and arts and amounting to a ban on radical innovation within Marxism quite uncharacteristic of Lenin's own major achievements.”
And what is especially tragic is that the collection of the LEF articles in Coiled Verbal Spring ends with a quote by Stalin, supplied by Alexei Kruchenykh, which argues that the party leader, who is by definition infallible, can override the majority opinion of the party, Within a few years, Stalin would destroy the Left Front of the Arts and all it stood for, in favour of a reactionary school of resuscitated romanticism called “socialist realism.”
All of the writers in Coiled Verbal Spring survived the purges of the 1930s. But Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930, after which Stalin imposed on his legacy the same fate as he imposed on the legacy of Lenin; he was 'canonised' as the great poet of the Bolshevik Revolution.
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