Chávez’s Gift to Obama: What’s to be Made of What Is To Be Done?

Lars T. Lih, June 4, 2009

Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela, has just announced on Venezuelan
television that the next time he meets with President Barack Obama, he
will give the American head of state a short book written in 1902 by
one Lenin, entitled What Is to Be Done? (Chto delat’?).

A surprising announcement. The last time Chávez showed his
willingness to fill out Obama’s reading list, he gave him a topical
book on the situation in Latin America. But what topical interest can
be found in a book over a century old, written under the drastically
alien circumstances of tsarist Russia? Besides, many of us will
remember being taught about this book in a poli sci or history class.
Isn’t What Is to Be Done? a ‘blueprint for Soviet tyranny’? Isn’t
this the book in which Lenin expressed his contempt for workers— or,
in any event, his worry that the workers would never be sufficiently
revolutionary? These worries, so we are told, led Lenin to advocate a
party of ‘professional revolutionaries’ from the intelligentsia that
would replace a genuine democratic mass movement. All in all, isn’t
What Is to Be Done? something of an embarrassment for the Left— a book
much better forgotten than thrust into the hands of world leaders?

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April 17, 2008

Here are some quotes I’ve come across recently that I think shed some light on some ideas that Zizek works with:

1. I was thinking to myself recently, ‘what the hell does it mean to say that the working class is the ‘excluded’ element in capitalism?’ I found my answer in (surprise!) Marx:

A class must be formed that has radical chains, a class in civil society which is not of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere of society which has a universal character because its sufferings are universal…, which is, in short, a total loss of humanity and which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society, as a particular class, is the proletariat (quoted in the editor’s introduction to The German Ideology, 13).

It comes from “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”

2. This quote is from Lukac’s Tactics and Ethics and in it I think we can see, perhaps, where part of Zizek’s ‘ethical’ position comes from… or at least that it’s not completely new:

This contrast helps greatly to elucidate the tactics of the revolutionary classes and parties: their tactics are not determined by short-term immediately attainable advantages; indeed, they must sometimes reject such advantages as endangering what is truly important, the ultimate objective. But since the ultimate objective has been categorized, not as Utopia, but as reality which has to be achieved, positing it above and beyond the immediate advantage does not mean abstracting from reality or attempting to impose certain ideals on reality, but rather it entails the knowledge and transformation into action of those forces already at work within social reality – those forces, that is, which are directed towards the realization of the ultimate objective. Without this knowledge the tactics of every revolutionary class or party will vacillate aimlessly between a Realpolitik devoid of ideals and an ideology without real content. It was the lack of this knowledge which characterized the revolutionary struggle of the bourgeois class. An ideology of the ultimate goal existed even here, it is true, but it could not be organically integrated into the planning of concrete action; rather, it developed in a largely pragmatic way, in the creation of institutions which quickly became ends in themselves, thereby obscuring the ultimate objective itself and degrading it to the level of pure, already ineffectual ideology. The unique sociological significance of socialism is precisely that it provides a solution to this problem. For if the ultimate objective of Read the rest of this entry »

Marx had some trouble with the opening of Capital because he wasn’t sure what the core of the capitalist system was. The conclusion he came to, as we know, was that the commodity form was the basis of what makes capitalism capitalism. When this form seizes labour, capital begins in earnest. Trade in goods does not a capitalist system make – many countries traded goods long before they were capitalist. It was only after the English dispossessed peasants of their ability to live from the land, only after they were forced to sell themselves as labourers, that capitalism began.

I opened with the question of beginnings because I took another look at Michael Ignatieff’s CBC Massey Lectures today (The Rights Revolution) and it seems to me that he suffers from the same problem that Marx did, though he doesn’t know it – and it leads his philosophy in the wrong direction. That is, he starts from rights and moves backwards, rather than hunting the terrain for the proper place to begin and going from there. The end result is, well, liberal thought that portrays itself as neutral fact: “Right’s aren’t intrinsically in the service of either progressive causes or conservative one’s. They’re just there to keep our arguments orderly” (30). Well! If that’s not enough to make you scoff, curse, and gnash your teeth, let me try to give you reason to do so.

Rights and democracy

First, however, let me give some rather lengthy quotes so Ignatieff can himself lay out his basic position:

In the end, we will have to choose between individual and group rights, and I hope to show… why we should allow individual rights to prevail. […]

Certainly some civil inequalities between men and women, between gays and straights, between Quebecois and English Canadians, have been addressed by rights talk. But what about inequalities between rich and poor? One of the strange features of rights tallk has been that it makes visible some inequalities – sexual and linguistic inequalities, for example – while obscuring others – such as those based on class and income. I’m no Marxist, but I am astonished that social and economic inequality…has simply disappeared from the political agenda in Canada and most other capitalist societies. The disappearance has something to do with rights talk. It can capture civil and political inequalities, but it can’t capture more basic economic inequalities, such as the way the economy rewards owners and investors at the expense of workers (19-20).

No, Michael, you’re not a Marxist, (as much as you want to brag about the ‘[bourgeois] socialist passion’ you possessed as a student), and that’s why the economic thread breaks off immediately after this quote to return to a discussion of rights. Ignatieff’s project is not just to track the history of the development of human rights in Canada and it’s effect on the world, but to show how we can’t just go about infringing on people’s individual property rights. But let me show you what I mean:

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