Lefort, Lenin, and other alternatives

Alan N. Shapiro's essay on political philosopher Claude Lefort deserves a look. It's more reminiscence of the role Lefort played in Shapiro's thinking than summary of Lefort's writing but the nut of it is here:

This is a generalization, but many thinkers and political actors who were radical in their youth give up their radicalism as they grow older and become liberals. I can’t help but think of Joschka Fischer – the former leader of the German Green Party and Foreign Minister of Germany from 1997 to 2005 – as a prime example of this. Fischer went from being an opponent of war to being a “leader” of wars in Serbia/Kosovo and Afghanistan. The point is to not give up radicalism for liberalism, but rather to be an advocate of both. To understand how the strengths and best values of both can be united.

Shapiro mentions both Lefort and Richard Rorty as exponents of a liberal/radical hybrid and explicitly rejects recent arguments of Slavoj Žižek's in favor of "repeating Lenin" (see, e.g. this essay), Shapiro writes:

BIG MAN on CAMPUS Slavoj Žižek recently published a couple of books celebrating Lenin, and he has recommended that we turn to Lenin.

Žižek is a funny guy, so it must be a joke. But I don’t get the joke. Lenin was a mass murderer.

Lenin crushed the workers’ councils in factories that were the real heart and soul of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Lenin crushed the movement led by Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine which fought against both the Red and White Armies, resisting state authority, whether capitalist or communist. Lenin crushed the rebellion of the Kronstadt sailors in the Gulf of Finland in 1921. All these repressive acts established the precedent for the suppression of workers’ uprisings by Khrushchev in East Germany in 1953 and in Hungary in 1956, and by Brezhnev in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Some Marxists (I guess Žižek is one of them) believe that Lenin was a brilliant Marxist theoretician. This must also be a joke. Lenin’s second most famous book, after What Is To be Done?, is called State and Revolution. Read this book and you’ll see that Lenin’s so-called “theory of the state” is a non-theory. Lenin’s theorization of the capitalist state is that the state is an “instrument” of the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie). That’s it. He has nothing more to say about the state. That this was the alpha and omega of what Lenin had to say about the state is clearly stated by much more sophisticated Marxist theorists-academicians, in books like The State and Capitalist Society and Class Power and State Power by Ralph Miliband (the father of current British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband) and in essays on the Marxist theory of the state by New York University political science professor Bertell Ollman.

Lenin grants no “autonomy” to the state in his theorization of the state under capitalism. As a theory, it is crude and reductionist, a so-called “reflection” theory. Naturally it follows that Lenin is not going to be the guy to have any theory of the post-revolutionary state. Since the capitalist state is nothing but an instrument of the bourgeoisie, therefore the communist or socialist or Marxist or revolutionary state is going to be, for this blind man, nothing more than an instrument of “the revolution.” Since the revolution is “good,” the revolutionary state must therefore be “good.” Puke! Vomit! Barf! Zum Kotzen!

Shapiro recommends Bernard Flynn's book on Lefort; I am reading it now and will attempt a summary when I'm done. The chapters on Lefort's reading of Machiavelli inspire. Per Lefort, Machiavelli recognized early on that class struggle is inherent in every society, even ones traditionally anchored in religious principles or aristocratic succession. "The Prince" aligns himself with the people against the grandees but provides order through projection of strong leadership. Even princely societies need outlets for public grievances, and Lefort suggests that Machiavelli was subversively calling for revival of a mechanism along the lines of the Roman tribunal (flouting the aristocrats of the day, who stifled dissent while idealizing Rome). Lefort's Machiavellian studies inform his other writing, which sees totalitarianism as a modern aberration -- even more pathological than old-fashioned tyranny in that it perversely tries to suppress conflict and class struggle by defining them out of existence.