Papers and Tigers: Was Lenin Really an Anarchist?

This post is part of our ongo­ing debate on the rel­e­vance of Lenin, which start­ed with Salar Mohan­desi and Todd Chre­tien. See the response by Pham Binh, and Mohandesi’s final response.

“Dur­ing the life­time of great rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, the oppress­ing class­es con­stant­ly hound­ed them, received their the­o­ries with the most sav­age mal­ice, the most furi­ous hatred and the most unscrupu­lous cam­paigns of lies and slan­der. After their death, attempts are made to con­vert them into harm­less icons, to can­on­ize them, so to say, and to hal­low their names to a cer­tain extent for the ‘con­so­la­tion’ of the oppressed class­es and with the object of dup­ing the lat­ter, while at the same time rob­bing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry of its sub­stance, blunt­ing its rev­o­lu­tion­ary edge and vul­gar­iz­ing it.” – Vladimir Lenin, State and Rev­o­lu­tion

“Asked after­wards about whether the Russ­ian cir­cus was going to kill the tiger involved, the train­er respond­ed with hon­esty. ‘If we were to shoot every tiger that attacks us, there wouldn’t be any remain­ing.’” – Jason Hrib­al, Fear of The Ani­mal Plan­et

Com­rade Lenin is just one in a long line of heroes I don’t know a lot about. He’s the kind of his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter engi­neered to mod­el, made for a time when rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies pinned up news­pa­per head­shots over their beds and went to bed vow­ing to wake up and be more like Che or Mao or Gaddafhi or Car­los or Ulrike or Huey or even masked Mar­cos. The 20th Cen­tu­ry saw Com­mu­nist Par­ties and par­ty­ing com­mu­nists, but both had their icons. We are, how­ev­er, icon­o­clasts; some bold sans-serif lulz-text in place of a black line.

This will then be a series of some­what dis­joint­ed thoughts about orga­ni­za­tion­al and strat­e­gy in the short-medi­um term.

I begin with an obser­va­tion: we do not have a par­ty. Whether we ought coa­lesce into a par­ty to main­tain and grow the Occu­py sequence is beside the point; what is clear is that we have not and do not appear to intend it any time soon. The inquiry should then be along these lines: why don’t we have a par­ty, and why won’t we be mak­ing one?

The August 2 Gen­er­al Assem­bly in New York marked a shift away from the tongue-bit­ing tol­er­ance the hard-left has offered social­ist par­ties. We went into the plaza with a par­ty and came out with a strat­e­gy instead. For all the grous­ing about a minor­i­ty of anar­chists who screw every­thing up, no one has put for­ward an alter­na­tive orga­ni­za­tion­al pro­gram to loose con­sen­sus that doesn’t get them laughed out of the trust cir­cle. Remem­ber when the OWS “Demands Work­ing Group” was a thing? Nei­ther does any­one else. Through­out the whole process I’ve heard a lot of calls for some kind of restrained deci­sion-mak­ing hier­ar­chy, but I’ve not once heard any­one put them­selves for­ward to lead.  And with good rea­son: we’d assume they were a cop or a con, a co-opter or a crazy.

Salar calls in his remarks for “an his­tor­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic pro­gram” and then ends, for that’s the lim­it. To actu­al­ly pre­scribe the pro­gram would be to mis­un­der­stand his rela­tion­ship as a schol­ar and the­o­rist to the actions in the street. These days no one is expect­ed to com­mand the army, con­quer the dialec­tic, and con­duct the march­ing band at the same time.

Todd’s pedan­tic arti­cle is a per­fect exam­ple of why we should be care­ful not to be too care­ful. Rev­o­lu­tion is not a genie lying dor­mant since 1917 in the right under­used library book. By the end of his state­ments, he has reduced the goal of the dis­cus­sion to spark­ing anoth­er sus­tained exam­i­na­tion of the strengths and weak­ness­es of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. If this is accom­plished “then we will have done our jobs.” As a schol­ar, per­haps this is the case – I wouldn’t know, I’m not a spe­cial­ist in the field  – but no revolutionary’s job is done with the rais­ing of aware­ness or debate.

It seems worth not­ing that the badge-check gate at Left Forum, where Salar and Todd gave their remarks, was stormed by marchers under an “Occu­py” ban­ner, who went around the con­fer­ence beseech­ing par­tic­i­pants to join them at Zuc­cot­ti Park only a cou­ple blocks away rather than delib­er­ate about the future of the occu­pa­tion inside an expen­sive event. Some joined, most did not.

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry should inform our behav­ior in the streets, but cer­tain­ly no more than our expe­ri­ences in the streets should inform our the­o­ry. It has been aston­ish­ing to see how dis­ci­plined, cre­ative, but most impor­tant­ly, intel­li­gent, I’ve seen crowds be dur­ing this sequence. Much has been made of Twitter’s role in aid­ing in the coor­di­na­tion of demon­stra­tions, but there’s been less said about the amount of cap­i­tal invest­ed in mak­ing these activists strong post-Fordist work­ers. The same traits that the “knowl­edge econ­o­my” val­orizes (spon­tane­ity, ambi­tion, self-orga­ni­za­tion, quick always-on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, work­ing in teams) are what have enabled the occu­pa­tions to take hold in the par­tic­u­lar form that they have. “Idle chat­ter” between work­ers was a threat on the Fordist pro­duc­tion line, now it’s a site of cap­ture. We’re trained to do it. Of course the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers went to look for Lenin at the cru­cial moment – but would we?

A his­tori­cized analy­sis has to take capital’s role in the pro­duc­tion of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty seri­ous­ly, not as a spell to be undone or a veil to be lift­ed, but as a mate­r­i­al ele­ment of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion. Cap­i­tal births its own very spe­cif­ic gravedig­gers; or, to do some vio­lence to a cou­ple of sage koans: you don’t go to war with the army you want, but if you try some­times, you just might find, you go to war with the army you need.

If cap­i­tal real­ly want­ed to crip­ple Occu­py, it could stop pro­duc­ing Adder­all. But it can’t.

The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the above images rais­es a cou­ple ques­tions I want to address. First: its rela­tion to the Lenin quote that begins both this piece and State and Rev­o­lu­tion, and sec­ond: what it has to do with a par­ty. These are the same ques­tion.


Lenin is writ­ing of Marx, but a bet­ter con­tem­po­rary exam­ple might be Cor­nel West’s descrip­tion of anti-apartheid mil­i­tant Nel­son Mandela’s reha­bil­i­ta­tion in Occi­den­tal eyes as “San­ta-Clausi­fi­ca­tion.” And he’s not even dead.

Cap­i­tal must grow to sur­vive – we all agree on this. That means sub­sum­ing new spaces of human activ­i­ty, a lit­er­al and fig­u­ra­tive colo­nial­ism. Over time, there are few­er and few­er spaces left to invade, but the need for growth doesn’t dimin­ish. There are a few options, one of which is to col­o­nize and extract val­ue from the future through the inno­va­tion of finan­cial prod­ucts and the growth of stu­dent debt. But cap­i­tal inevitably faces what Alber­to Toscano describes as a dou­ble bind, hav­ing to encour­age thought and behav­ior that is not yet nec­es­sar­i­ly in its inter­est. The Matrix pop­u­lar­ized this line of thought when the writ­ers had to find a way to explain why rev­o­lu­tion was still pos­si­ble in a real­i­ty com­plete­ly man­u­fac­tured by malev­o­lent machines: if it weren’t, the whole pro­gram wouldn’t work. A cir­cus needs tigers.

The recu­per­a­tion Lenin describes def­i­nite­ly still hap­pens – most notably in Apple’s “Think Dif­fer­ent” series, an almost com­i­cal­ly text­book appli­ca­tion of the the­o­ry – but meth­ods must devel­op with the growth. While Marx could be exclu­sive­ly “hound­ed” in his life­time, today’s cap­i­tal­ists don’t have that lux­u­ry. But rev­o­lu­tion­ary affect is a dan­ger­ous space for a cap­i­tal­ist to tread – if it weren’t, the pro­gram wouldn’t work. No risk, no reward. Unleash the chaos.

His own sub­sump­tion didn’t have to come into Lenin’s deci­sion cal­cu­lus as a leader. He could rea­son­ably believe his polit­i­cal pro­gram could advance faster than its appro­pri­a­tion. We no longer have that lux­u­ry; instead, we won­der what’s going to be in Ben and Jerry’s Occu­py fla­vor. And I’m not just talk­ing about the for­mal sub­sump­tion of rev­o­lu­tion either – using at-hand pitch­forks and buy­ing guns and rely­ing on ren­tiers like Twit­ter, Livestream, and Kick­starter are three dif­fer­ent things. I’m talk­ing your-face-on-a-t-shirt-while-you’re-still-alive shit. Appro­pri­ate or be appro­pri­at­ed. We don’t need more icons, we need more black lines.


Pas­sive voice is near­ly always a hint to look clos­er, to find the sub­ject. Who is the sub­ject in “Anar­chy Sym­bol Updat­ed To Appeal To Today’s Teens?” The answer to the joke about the lim­its of capital’s abil­i­ty to sub­sume its own antag­o­nists is rep­e­ti­tion in a flat voice: Sell anar­chy! Sell anar­chy. And by who else but a brand that had hit the lim­it of sex­ploita­tion adver­tis­ing, acci­den­tal­ly asso­ci­at­ing them­selves with the des­per­a­tion that under­lies the appeal. Who updates the anar­chy logo? The mar­ket does.

Wit­ness Levi’s hav­ing to pull this ad because of the Tot­ten­ham riots. It end­ed up com­ing off in con­text as a real­ly strong pro­pa­gan­da short-film in favor of gen­er­al­iz­ing the unrest. One of the argu­ments against party­less orga­ni­za­tion and spon­ta­neous action is that there is no time to craft a mes­sage in advance. But here it was, off the air but in the YouTube blood­stream, per­fect­ly cal­i­brat­ed. After all, you can’t just sell peo­ple jeans any more. That no video edi­tor took the five min­utes nec­es­sary to cut out the Levi’s brand­ing and paste in “sol­i­dar­i­ty means attack” is a crime.

Of course, the Axe mar­ket­ing cam­paign leaves some­thing to be desired when it comes to rev­o­lu­tion­ary insti­ga­tion. But who says we can’t all be guer­ril­la mar­keters for Anar­chy? It would be easy to make offi­cial-look­ing Axe Anar­chy t-shirts because the logo is a graf­fi­ti sten­cil. The fake shirts would be real­er than the real thing. Unilever has already spent mil­lions mak­ing Anar­chy a trust­ed brand; cap­i­tal doesn’t just birth its grave dig­gers, it equips us with machin­ery.

If we have a par­ty, we have the only par­ty that finds a way to include every­one in its oper­a­tion, the par­ty that works whether mem­bers believe in it or not, the only one that’s struc­tural­ly invul­ner­a­ble to any sin­gle mem­ber being killed or dis­cred­it­ed.

Who turned the occu­pa­tions into Occu­py?

Tiqqun has attempt­ed to the­o­rize such an orga­ni­za­tion in the form of the “Imag­i­nary Par­ty,” which “com­pos­es itself to this day of the neg­a­tive mul­ti­tude of those who do not have a class, and do not want to have one, of the soli­tary crowd of those who have re-appro­pri­at­ed their fun­da­men­tal non-appear­ance in com­mod­i­ty soci­ety under the form of a vol­un­tary non-par­tic­i­pa­tion in it.” Here mem­ber­ship in the par­ty is based on a kind of aware­ness and a cor­re­spond­ing refusal: “there are in this soci­ety but two par­ties: the par­ty of those who pre­tend that there is but one par­ty, and the par­ty of those who know that there are in truth two. Already from this obser­va­tion, one will know to rec­og­nize our par­ty.”

The nega­tion of the nega­tion.

One part Bartle­by, one part Fight Club, this “vol­un­tary non-par­tic­i­pa­tion” deserves some more scruti­ny. Par­tic­i­pa­tion and par­ty have the same root, but I have to assume the Imag­i­nary Par­ty does not just include the very few peo­ple in the West total­ly self-exclud­ed from com­mod­i­ty soci­ety. When Tiqqun describes the con­ser­v­a­tive seg­ments of the Par­ty (“lib­er­tar­i­an mili­tias, right-wing anar­chists, insur­rec­tionary fas­cists, Qur­bist jihadists, rural­ist mili­tias”), the list includes groups that could hard­ly be said to be non-par­tic­i­pants. Amer­i­can Renais­sance held their last nation­al con­fer­ence at an Olive Gar­den. To break a win­dow is to employ a glazier. Your books have bar­codes too. If mem­ber­ship in the Imag­i­nary Par­ty is deter­mined by style of life, then as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion it will remain decid­ed­ly imag­i­nary.

So we’re talk­ing about some sort of non-com­pli­ance of the will, of the spir­it, if not of the hands and stom­ach. There are two par­ties: those who get some­thing fun­da­men­tal about this real­i­ty and those who don’t. The awake and the asleep.

That the Imag­i­nary Par­ty is appar­ent­ly con­sti­tut­ed in large part by orga­nized and vio­lent misog­y­nists doesn’t come up.

But in San­ford, Flori­da, is it the armed Nazi patrolling the streets or who­ev­er put six shots in an emp­ty cop car that’s a mem­ber of the Par­ty? In the event that the two come in con­tact, would that be what Tiqqun calls the intra-Par­ty civ­il war? The process they call “par­ty build­ing?” Which of the two par­ties was Trayvon Mar­tin, for­ev­er asso­ci­at­ed with Skit­tles and Ari­zona Iced Tea, in? I believe any con­cep­tu­al appa­ra­tus or polit­i­cal map that can’t at very least address this con­junc­tion of actors will be irrel­e­vant in the time-frame I’m attempt­ing to think.

In Tiqqun’s for­mu­la­tion then, I’m a mem­ber of the first of one par­ty. There is indeed one par­ty, and we’re all par­tic­i­pants.

#34 in “Gov­ern­ment > Pub­lic Pol­i­cy”

I once met an Ital­ian at a con­fer­ence who told me over beers about how he and his com­rades used EU grants designed to facil­i­tate cross-bor­der youth cul­tur­al exchange to con­vene groups of rev­o­lu­tion­ary com­mu­nists. He must have sensed some hes­i­ta­tion on my part because he pulled up his sleeves and thrust his arms toward me as if the words were no longer in his throat but in his palms: “These hands are not clean! There are no clean hands!”

To return to my orig­i­nal ques­tion: we won’t be hav­ing a par­ty because, like a gold­fish look­ing for a glass of water, we already have one – we are a par­ty to the cap­i­tal­ist state. The CP is orga­nized but rid­dled with con­tra­dic­tion, always try­ing to run and untie its own shoes at the same time. With­in the par­ty of cap­i­tal, the Left is just one of dozens of eso­teric mil­lenar­i­an sects devot­ed to the wider organization’s self-destruc­tion. Not pre­de­ter­mined, but fore­told in a great many lan­guages and codes.

Sab­o­tage occurs from the inside, with and to the equip­ment at hand. To put down our tools – either in search of the per­fect work­ing class orga­ni­za­tion­al “sword” or to wedge our hands in the gears – would be to put down our tools. A mil­i­tant pol­i­cy of stop­ping capital’s flows leaves you stand­ing in the mid­dle of the street hug­ging a truck’s bumper. But grab a few reflect­ing vests and a few signs and sud­den­ly you’re direct­ing a col­umn of speed­ing steel.

In Hribal’s book about ani­mal resis­tance, he details the dif­fer­ence between refusal and sab­o­tage. Appar­ent­ly, per­form­ing ani­mals about to go on ram­pages are very good at pre­tend­ing noth­ing is wrong, and going along with the show as planned before snap­ping at the cru­cial moment. The sto­ry of the tiger who attacks his train­er is always already part of the show, or it wouldn’t be much of a show at all. So why refuse to go on when you can prac­tice that bit where they put their head in your mouth?

What will be the impor­tance of Lenin in the next two years of anti-cap­i­tal­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gle? I don’t know, but I expect it will be minor on an absolute scale. If it’s as large as the tem­po­rary inter­est in Marx that pre­oc­cu­pied The Econ­o­mist for a few weeks dur­ing the height of the hous­ing cri­sis, I would be sur­prised, and that’s still rel­a­tive­ly minor. The prob­lem isn’t that Lenin is an emp­ty sym­bol of rev­o­lu­tion, but that the Left has a lot invest­ed in his sym­bol­ic mean­ing, while our ene­mies have almost noth­ing. We have lit­tle to gain and a lot of time to lose – it’s a suck­er bet. But things change; maybe they’ll do a biopic. Leo DiCaprio with a fur­rowed brow, a sharp goa­tee. Let them print the posters.

Levi’s Berlin Print Shop

May 1 Gen­er­al Strike

Author of the article

is a managing editor of The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.