Reading Group 07.22.02 — Susan Kelly — Lenin + Zizek Discussion

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Reading Group 07.22.02 — Susan Kelly — Lenin + Zizek Discussion
1. About this Monday
2. Excerpt from Reading — A Plea for Leninist Intolerance
3. Some Useful Links on Lenin/Zizek
1. About this Monday
When: 7pm
Where: 16 Beaver Street, 5th Floor
Who: Open to all
A big part of the16BEAVER project has been about friendship and
a space/time of continuity within the discontinuities of …. (need we
write further?).
This week we invite artists, thinker, friend Susan Kelly, who has most
recently been residing in Finland + visiting Toronto + taking a
Greyhound to NYC + riding the 4 or 5 train to sixteenbeaver to share
her work and thoughts.
She has suggested a reading of Slavoj Zizek’s ‘A Plea for Leninist
Intolerance’ published in Critical Inquiry last year and also given as a
lecture at Documenta Platform 1 in Vienna, 2000.
She writes:
“I would also like to introduce (and perhaps generate some discussion about)
a project that myself and Stephen are working on for the Lenin Museum in
Tampere Finland. The project is called ‘What is to be Done? Questions for
the 21st Century’ and asks for your responses to some of Lenin’s big
questions (post 100 years ago).
I hope you can make it! – Susan.
As always anyone interested is welcome. If people bring some beer we
can make a party of it afterwards.
2. Excerpt from Reading — A Plea for Leninist Intolerance
Winter 2001
Volume 28, Number 2
A Plea for Leninist Intolerance
by Slavoj Zizek
What is tolerance today? The most popular TV show of the fall of 2000 in France, with a viewer rating two times higher than that of the notorious “Big Brother” reality soap, is “C’est mon choix” (“It is my choice”) on France 3, a talk-show whose guest is each time an ordinary (or, exceptionally, well-known) person who made a peculiar choice that determined his or her entire lifestyle. For example, one of them decided never to wear underwear, another constantly tried to find a more appropriate sexual partner for his father and mother. Extravagance is allowed, solicited even, but with the explicit exclusion of the choices which may disturb the public (say, a person whose choice is to be and act as a racist, is a priori excluded).
Can one imagine a better summary of what the “freedom of choice” effectively amounts to in our liberal societies? Ulrich Beck introduced the notion of “reflexive society” in which all patterns of interaction, from the forms of sexual partnership up to ethnic identity itself, have to be renegotiated or reinvented.1 Perhaps the properly frustrating dimension of this eternal stimulus to make free choices is best rendered by the situation of having to choose a product in online shopping, where one has to make an almost endless series of choices: if you want it with X, click A, if not, click B. We can go on making our small choices, “reinventing ourselves,” on condition that these choices do not disturb the social and ideological balance. With regard to C’est mon choix, the truly radical thing would have been to focus precisely on the disturbing choices: to invite people like dedicated racists, whose choice–whose difference–does make a difference. Phenomena like these make it all the more necessary today to reassert Lenin’s opposition of “formal” and “actual” freedom. Let us then fearlessly evoke Lenin at his worst–say, his polemics against the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionaries’ critique of Bolshevik power in 1922:
“Indeed, the sermons which…the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: “The revolution has gone too far. What you are saying now we have been saying all the time, permit us to say it again.” But we say in reply: “Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the whiteguards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious whiteguard elements.”2
This Leninist forced choice–not “Your money or your life!” but “No critique or your life!”, combined with his dismissive attitude toward the liberal notion of
freedom, accounts for his bad reputation among liberals. And, effectively, is today, after the terrifying experience of the Realsozialismus, not more than obvious
in what the fault of this reasoning resides? First, it reduces a historical constellation to a closed, fully contextualized situation in which the “objective”
consequences of one’s acts are fully determined (“independently of your intentions, what you are doing now objectively serves…”); second, the party usurps the
right to decide what your acts “objectively mean.” Is this, however, the whole story? There is, nonetheless, a rational kernel in Lenin’s obsessive tirades against
formal freedom worth saving today; when he underlines that there is no pure democracy, that we should always ask whom a freedom under consideration serves, his point is precisely to maintain the possibility of a true choice. Formal freedom is the freedom of choice within the coordinates of the existing power
relations, while actual freedom designates the site of an intervention that undermines these very coordinates.
The first public reaction to the idea of reactualizing Lenin is, of course, an outburst of sarcastic laughter: Marx–okay, even on Wall Street they love him today–the poet of commodities, who provided perfect descriptions of capitalist dynamics, Marx of cultural studies, who portrayed the alienation and reification of our daily lives…but Lenin, no, you can’t be serious! The working-class movement, revolutionary party, and similar zombie-concepts? Doesn’t Lenin stand precisely for the failure to put Marxism into practice, for the big catastrophe that left its mark on twentieth-century world politics, for the real socialist experiment that culminated in an economically inefficient dictatorship? So, in contemporary academic politics, a proposal to deal with Lenin is twice qualified: Yes, why not, we live in a liberal democracy, there is freedom of thought. However, one should treat Lenin in an objective, critical, and scientific way, not in an attitude of nostalgic idolatry, and, furthermore, from a perspective firmly rooted in the democratic political order, within the horizon of human rights. Therein resides the lesson painfully learned through the experience of the twentieth-century totalitarianisms.
What are we to say to this? Again, the problem resides in the implicit qualifications that can be easily discerned by the “concrete analysis of the concrete situation,” as Lenin himself would have put it. Fidelity to the democratic consensus means the acceptance of the present liberal-parliamentary consensus, which precludes any serious questioning of how this liberal-democratic order is complicit in the phenomena it officially condemns and, of course, any serious attempt to imagine a society whose sociopolitical order would be different. In short, it means say and write whatever you want on the condition that what you do does not effectively question or disturb the predominant political consensus. So everything is allowed, solicited even, as a critical topic: the prospects of a global ecological catastrophy, violations of human rights, sexism, homophobia, antifeminism, growing violence not only in faraway countries but also in our megalopolises, the gap between the First and the Third World, between the rich and the poor, the shattering impact of the digitalization of our daily lives, and so on. There is nothing easier today than to get international, state, or corporate funds for multidisciplinary research into how to fight the new forms of ethnic, religious, or sexist violence. The problem is that all this occurs against the background of a fundamental Denkverbot, a prohibition against thinking. Today’s liberal-democratic hegemony is sustained by a kind of unwritten Denkverbot similar to the infamous Berufsverbot in Germany of the late sixties; the moment one shows a minimal sign of engaging in political projects that aim to seriously challenge the existing order, the answer is immediately: “Benevolent as it is, this will necessarily end in a new Gulag!” And it is exactly the same thing that the demand for scientific objectivity means: the moment one seriously questions the existing liberal consensus, one is accused of abandoning scientific objectivity for the outdated ideological positions. This is the point that one cannot and should not concede: today, actual freedom of thought must mean the freedom to question the predominant liberal-democratic postideological consensus–or it means nothing.
1. See Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society, trans. Mark Ritter (Oxford, 1999).
2. V. I. Lenin, “Political Report of the Central Committee of the R.C.P. (B.), 27 March [1922],” Collected Works, trans. pub., ed. David Skvirsky and George Hanna, 45 vols. (Moscow, 1966), 33:283.
Slavoj Zizek, philosopher and psychoanalyst, is senior researcher at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut in Essen, Germany. His most recent publications are On Belief (2001), The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski and Post-Theory (2001), and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? (2001).
3. Some Useful Links on Lenin/Zizek
A great article with hyperlinks to many references, the site itself is a good resource!
Also with Hyperlinks.
fragment from Nettime
An interview we forwarded a while back.
Found this on the Columbia website, not
too close a reading, just a voice out there that is a bit more sceptical.
DOCUMENTA links (click back to see abstracts from other presenters)
4. Download Reading
You will need efax program to read, it is a free download.
The first two pages of the reading are not included in the
efax file, because they are included above.
e-fax Note:
For this and future readings you will need to have a version
of the efax messenger on your computer.
You do not need to open an account but you will have to give
an e-mail address to get your free version for MAC or WIN.
just visit
for MAC’s with stuffit expander:
Instructions for PC’s
Best way is to click file on internet explorer, and select download file,
a window will pop up, you will put in the following address:
Repeat the process again with the following address:
You will then need to open efax and open the file with it. If you attempt to double click on the file itself, it will most likely not be read as an efax file.
PLEASE WRITE TO help@16beavergroup.org