The Kyrgyz Lenin – From Spectre to Attractor (and Back)
Introduction to the book Lenin150
Strike me dead, the track has vanished, Well, what now? We’ve lost the way, Demons have bewitched our horses, Led us in the wilds astray.
Oh we, Who wished to lay the ground for kindnes Could not ourselves be kind. But you, when the time comes at last That wo/man is helper to wo/man Think of us With forbearance.
Kyrgyzstan, May 2011. Lenin everywhere. What a trip, or rather treat, or probably both. In any case, I was flabbergasted and at the same time strangely happy. It felt really good to keep running into him wherever we went. Not the real Lenin of course, but the statues, relics and images of him in central squares, on buildings and paintings. Clearly, the flesh-and-blood Vladimir Ilyich would have sternly disapproved of such cultish veneration. But truth be told, after having had to endure for years the incessant hubristic chatter about “the end of history” and the well-deserved triumph of so-called freedom and democracy (i.e. unfettered capitalist barbarism), it was just so nice to see him sticking around long after the demise of his very own offspring, the ever so Evil Empire aka the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or CCCP.
Later on in that first visit, I was told by my Kyrgyz friends that basically every main town in the former Kirghiz SSR still hosts a monument to tovarish Ulyanov. Over the years as I returned to the country time and again, I was privileged to confirm first-hand the ubiquity of the former н. Ленин in the cities and countryside, in some people’s hearts and other people’s minds, and certainly on people’s tongues. At least if you asked them directly about what Lenin meant for them both historically and in today’s times. Needless to say, there was a wide range of, generally quite passionately embodied, views about him, from total reverence to equally outright rejection. This came from a desperate holding on to the dream of a resurrection of the USSR – times have not been easy for many citizens since independence – to a just as fierce clinging to the yet unfulfilled promises of the brave new world of liberal democracy and globalised capitalism. As was to be expected, by and large the former views were expressed by those who had experienced the beauties and pains of actually existing socialism; while the advocates of the latter were generally people whose lives had unfolded in post-Soviet times. That was marked by multiple political revolutions, mass-scale economic migration to Russia, ethnic strife, the highly ambivalent benefits of simultaneously hosting both US and Russian military bases. But it also saw new forms of grassroots resistance, especially from women’s rights and queer activists, to name just a few “trivial” details of quotidian 21st century Kyrgyz life.
So far, so unsurprising. Both the adulation and demonisation of Lenin belong to the “usual suspects” category of remembering him, in Kyrgyzstan and beyond. Although there is undoubtedly something quite mysterious and mind-blowing about the visceral intensity with which praise and slurs continue to be bestowed on VIU a staggering 150 years after his birth in unsuspecting Simbirsk. In fact, even people’s frequently voiced indifference towards him was expressed in rather engaged (or was it resigned?) terms.
How to (ir)rationally explain this never-ending hysteria? A strange case of Leninitis? False Consciousness? Post-Traumatic Socialist Disorder? Cold War Syndrome? Left-Wing Melancholia? 1 The spectre of communism? How about self-fulfilling prophecy? Enter the scene: the anguished bard of Communism, Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky and his four-poem Lenin cycle immortalised by a single line:
“Ленин жил, Ленин жив, Ленин будет жить.”
“Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live.”
If you ask me, I like this reasoning the most, at least when thinking about Lenin from a Left perspective. I admit that it is neither particularly scientific nor particularly materialist and, really, not particularly dialectical either. On the contrary, it is rather plain and kitschy, and hence one might be tempted to call it idealist or utopian, replete with opioid undertones. No doubt, if it had not been published post-humously, Lenin himself would have showered unceasing abuse on Mayakovsky and then spent the next few days and nights writing Materialism and Empirio-Criticism 2.0 to refute his own immortality once and for all. But at the risk of myself becoming the subject of people’s ridicule and even wrath – people with more intellectual and Communist prowess than me – I do believe that there is value in Mayakovsky’s deification of Lenin, especially if taken together with another lowbrow historic utterance that united writer, Plutarch, and General Secretary, Julius Caesar: “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” “I came, I saw, I won.”
Because that is really what Lenin did and what makes him live forever, isn’t it? He came, he saw, he won. Not just him, of course. Lenin’s name has always stood for the expression of a collective project, and as such his quest for the realisation of the Marxian Kingdom of Freedom was and continues to be conducted, loved and vilified, in different personal pronouns and linguistic expressions: from the slandering “They are Leninists” to the self-ennobling “We are all Lenin,” or to put it in contemporary terms – #blamelenin, #beleninbehappy. In fact, at least in the English language, we might want to consider making the distinction between lenin with a small “l,” referring to the ultimately ordinary man living a quite extraordinary life, and Lenin with a capital “L,” standing in as a Left-wing floating signifier for everything that was, is and will always be good about (Communists like) us. You know, our capacity to think, feel, dream, analyse, state the truth, prepare, organise, imagine, strategise, create, intervene, struggle, be in solidarity with each other, fuck up, persevere, and yes, we must not forget, win.
The man lenin was a winner. He had, as the Germans say, the Sieger-Gen, the innate capacity and will to win. And all this might sound terribly deterministic and mechanical – sorry, Vladimir Ilyich. What I am getting at here is simply the fact that “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live” - has not only a propagandistic and (vaguely) lyrical but also an ontological dimension that I believe should not be reduced to the eternal paying homage to lenin the actually existing revolutionary. Though we may do that too, but rather to make his Sieger-Gen the psycho-material foundation of our own individual and collective DNA, our fighting spirit so to speak. In other words, we need to claim and make genetically ours precisely this Leninist drive to engage the dialectic of victory, i.e. to “accelerate the vicissitude of the times,” to take, when needed, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back,” to understand that sometimes the rule must be “Better fewer, but better,” to disregard the “malicious joy” of our “true friends” whenever we fail, to learn not to “give way to despondency” on our treacherous way to the summit, and finally, to dare to declare victory, put down our flag, raise our fists, throw back a few shots of vodka or cognac, sing and dance to “The Internationale” and get back to work.
Speaking of the latter, and at the risk of turning into a Leninist Killjoy,2 we must return to the streets of Kyrgyzstan once more. This time anno 2015. Because admittedly my initial excitement about the surreal presence of Lenin everywhere was soon complemented, replaced even, by a deep sense of defeat and loss. While at first seeing his statues in places like Osh, Bishkek or Batken had an incredibly invigorating and mobilising effect on me – sparks were flying and I was ready to “Leap, Leap, Leap” – on closer inspection, as I noticed their general state of advanced decay – a missing hand, a broken nose, a barely legible plaque – his monuments began to have exactly the opposite effect. They weighed on me, evoking an eerie sense of disillusionment and political paralysis. In short, I was no longer at ease. Instead of Mayakovsky’s exalting hymns, suddenly the sobering laments and warnings of comrades like Andrey Platonov, Walter Benjamin, Stuart Hall, Daniel Bensaïd, Pepetela, Bifo Berardi and Mark Fisher – yes, all of them male, I wonder why – came hammering into my head, epitomised by Hall’s “History is not waiting in the wings to catch up your mistakes into another inevitable success. You lose because you lose because you lose.” Mind you, it was not the premonitory nature of Hall’s sentence that caused me the greatest despair – speaking with Fisher I am “senselessly hopeful” that we will get another shot at “failing again and failing better” soon enough – but rather the encroaching realisation that the recent decades of revolutionary setbacks and defeats, symbolised by the bruised and battered Kyrgyz Lenin statues lingering on in “a place stained by time,”3 not only failed to bring about the much anticipated withering away of all kinds of practices of oppression but instead resulted – for many of us – in the increasing mutilation of our once so beautiful (left-)wings. #leninistired.
As all of us who struggle for a better world are viscerally aware, such feelings of despair, disenchantment, doubt, not to mention physical, psychological and emotional weariness, are not only part and parcel of the pathological phenomena of living under and struggling against contemporary capitalism (and other axis of evil members such as patriarchy and colonialism), but arguably belong to the rank and file experiences, indeed are perhaps a necessary (pre-)condition and at the same time inextinguishable element of the process of revolution itself. And while the official, monumental Vladimir Ilyich Lenin presented to us for decades was one of God-like superhuman strength and perseverance – buff, bold and beautiful – an image that undoubtedly and fortunately inspired and may still inspire millions of us across the world to pick up and reimagine our hammers, sickles and smartphones, it may just be that a more demonumentalised image of him could offer similar use-value for those of us – most of us? – facing the occasional difficulty to create another day of struggle. I am talking about the sick, exhausted, defeated, tormented, frail and dying lenin 4 so vividly described to us by his long-time companions Nadezhda Krupskaya, Alexandra Kollontai and Angelica Balabanoff – yes, all of them female, I wonder why. What comes to mind are the images of the bedridden lenin plagued by frequent and intense headaches in the difficult years before the revolution, the grieving, “shrunk” lenin at Inessa Armand’s funeral at the height of the Civil War and, of course, the isolated, supervised, silen(t)ced and suicidal lenin withering away on the outskirts of Moscow in the final days of his life.
It might be pushing it too far to hypothesise that lenin was battling with mental health during his long years of struggle, but from all we know and admire about his capacity of analysing concretely the concrete conditions around him, it may not be overly blasphemous to presume that a physically ailing, emotionally suffering and existentially imploding lenin, hanging on to a life of revolution in constantly adverse circumstances, must have at least occasionally questioned his own dialectical condition: What is to be done, Ильич? The political therapy that emerged from this speculative self-questioning was not a pre-historical version of today’s neoliberal self-optimisation, but a politics of endurance composed of: grudging self-care, in the form of his oft-cited restorative walks in the countryside; comradely love – being among workers and especially sharing his life with powerful women, for example Maria Alexandrowna, Nadezhda Konstantinovna and Inessa Fyodorovna; compulsive (letter) writing, including the surely not always justified but unquestionably liberating taking-it-all-out-on-others; and an unceasing epistemic curiosity – how many books did he read again during his multiple exiles? – all of which, taken together, resulted in a renewed capacity and desire to revive the struggle through the strategic application of his power for positive hallucinations in action, i.e. his uncanny ability to see what is not there (yet) followed by the mobilisation of all his physical and mental energies to turn singular vision into collective reality – the right to disillusionment and “beginning from the beginning” included.
The bedridden lenin went on to boldly pronounce his April Theses and then made sure that the locomotive of history reached its destination, at least temporarily, for the first time. The grieving lenin eventually recovered his life force and did not hesitate to “descend from [a] height that no one before him ha[d] reached,” stunning friends and foes alike with the announcement of a New Economic Policy that kept the locomotive going when everyone’s fuel was running low. The silen(t)ced Lenin, finally, provided a rude awakening from beyond the grave, in the form of his belatedly released “testament,” to all those who had since betrayed his legacy by embalming him into an infallible icon adorning the country’s train stations while the locomotive went sputtering on until finally crashing into the abyss in 1991.
It is this Comeback Lenin who, in today’s parlance, knew and came to accept that “there is a time for depression, [a]nd we shouldn’t underestimate its cognitive potential;”5 this vanguard-cum-rearguard Lenin who had to learn the hard way that “Little Annoyances Should Not Stand in the Way of a Big Pleasure;”6 this Sisyphean Lenin, who understood that the revolutionary personality is forged, nourished and sustained in the ebbs and flows between the drowning disillusionments of the nadir and the intoxicating heights of the summit – it is this Lenin of whom we may wish to think not only with forbearance, for all he did and did not do, but with whom we may also want to be in critical solidarity for all his awkward rock-climbing and free-falling done not only in his but in all our names. For it is the lessons we can still learn from his attempts to create a more just and beautiful world, free of exploitation and alienation, that are arguably the most potent antidote to the heart- and mind-numbing, politically immobilising consumer temptations with which the “ruling ontology”7 desires to bewitch us. One of these lessons, perhaps the most encouraging one, is that there is always an alternative track worth believing in and struggling for: yesterday, today, tomorrow. #goodriddancetina.8
In my experience, the Lenin monuments in Kyrgyzstan, in the year of the old man’s 150th anniversary, despite or even because of their beautiful decrepitude, continue to exude and echo precisely this (haunting) Leninist spirit. They implore those of us born after to hear the terrible news and pass the time given to us on earth struggling against and beyond the dark times we live in, all the while never forgetting that those in power sit safer without us.9 Paraphrasing Mark Fisher, yes, we can choose to regard these icons as that which (in actuality) is no longer, but which is still effective as a virtuality: our (anti-)communist compulsion to repeat via Soviet nostalgia and Left-wing USSR-phobia. More importantly, however, we can also choose to view them as quite literally standing in for that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual – an attractor, an anticipation potentially shaping current and future actions.10
This attractor, for many of us, continues to be a variant of the communist horizon,11 lying far in the distance, but clearly visible, though we ourselves, just like Lenin and his poetic disciple Bertolt Brecht, may ultimately fail to reach it. Nonetheless, the seeming impossibility of our task – after all, we know that we do not make history under self-selected circumstances – has never stopped us from wagering that a world in which wo/man is helper to wo/man will one day emerge from the flood in which many of us (will) have gone under. And while we have yet to prove Marx wrong that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, chances are that next time round we will create something much more just, democratic, beautiful and joyful than what all hitherto existing attempts – our attempts – have accomplished. #spectreofcommunism. #lenin150.
So that’s it. Socialism or Barbarism 2.0. Our response is obvious: no alternative, but to fight. Fight with despair, fight with outrage, fight with hope, fight with joy, fight with commitment, fight with groove. Fight in whatever way comes most natural to each and every one of us. But fight we must. Individually and together. For the communist necessity.12 From all I have come to know about them in the process of composing Lenin150 (Samizdat), the comrade-authors in this book are all powerful and amazing fellow fighters on our multiple paths to the communist horizon. As such, I am confident that their texts and their compelling, and in some cases absolutely urgent, appropriations of Lenin will be of considerable use-value for our struggles ahead.
¡ La lucha continúa ! ¡ Venceremos y Encantaremos !
This is the foreward to the new book Lenin 150. Reproduced with the author's permission.
The book can be ordered für @15 plus postal costs from lenin150@posteo. If you live in Berlin, you can get a copy from us. Either contact firstname.lastname@example.org or you can pick up a copy at Summer Camp.
Ahmed, Sara (2017), Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Berardi, Franco “Bifo” (2008), Félix Guattari: Thought, Friendship and Visionary Cartography. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Brecht, Bertolt (2020), “To Those Born After.” Translation: Patrick Anderson.
Dean, Jodi (2012), The Communist Horizon. London: Verso.
Fisher, Mark (2009), Capitalist Realism. London: Zero Books.
Fisher, Mark (2012), “What Is Hauntology?,” Film Quarterly, 66(1), 16-24.
Hall, Stuart (1987), “Gramsci and Us,” Marxism Today.
Lenin, V.I. (1977), Collected Works Vol. 7. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Moufawad-Paul, J. (2014), The Communist Necessity. Montreal: Kersplebedeb.
Traverso, Enzo (2016), Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory. New York: Columbia University Press.
1 See Traverso 2016 for an important recent engagement with left-wing melancholy.
2 With regard to Sara Ahmed and her notion of the Feminist Killjoy.
3 “Haunting can be seen as intrinsically resistant to the contraction and homogenization of time and space. It happens when a place is stained by time, or when a particular place becomes the site for an encounter with broken time.” (Fischer 2012: 19)
4 As viscerally portrayed by Ursina Lardi in Milo Rau’s 2017 play, LENIN. See the interview with Ursina in Chapter 12.
5 Berardi 2008: 10.
6 Lenin 1977: 366.
7 Fisher 2009: 43.
8 The acronym TINA stands for “There is no Alternative” (to free-market capitalism, liberal democracy and human rights), a logic associated with the radical neoliberal restructuring of the world, led by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former US president Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. Since the end of actually existing socialism, TINA and its ideological evil twin, “The End of History,” as declared by US neocon Francis Fukuyama, have been incessantly promoted as the horizon of human possibilities by the world’s political, economic, cultural and ideological elites, but not without resistance.
9 This sentence is a paraphrasing of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “To Those Born After.” Please see new translation on page 269-271.
10 “Provisionally, then, we can distinguish two directions in hauntology. The first refers to that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which is still effective as a virtuality (the traumatic ‘‘compulsion to repeat,’’ a structure that repeats, a fatal pattern). The second refers to that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behaviour).” (Fisher 2012: 19)
11 The expression “communist horizon” was frequently invoked by former Bolivian vice-president Álvaro García Linera in the first few years of the Proceso de Cambio (2006-) led by Evo Morales Ayma. See Dean 2012 for a crucial engagement with the communist horizon.
12 See Moufawad-Paul 2014 for a polemical but/and forceful distinction between the communist possibility and the communist necessity.