I was Vladimir Lenin for Halloween in 2002.
I have absolutely no recollection as to why—I’m pretty sure I leaned liberal democrat at the time, of the sort that Lenin might call a “petty bourgeois philistine”, and not revolutionary communist. But it seems important because, apparently, I knew who Vladimir Lenin was when I was fifteen.
This is relevant because I taught Lenin this semester, in an undergraduate history of sociological theory class. To be clear, this was weird: I don’t know if any other prominent department is short-shrifting Erving Goffman or Pierre Bourdieu in order to read “State and Revolution”. It was also propitious because our two weeks on Lenin fell exactly on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution (well, on the Julian Calendar).
I promised my students that they wouldn’t have to know much about the Russian Revolution, or really, European history, to do well in the class. This seemed like a relief, because they didn’t seem to know much about the Russian Revolution, or really, European history. After all, when I asked one section what big WORLD event was happening in the whole WORLD in 1917, I couldn’t get “World War I” for the life of me. (This is almost certainly a product of my asking an unclear question or having an intimidating classroom environment, but it’s a good story).
I’m pretty sure this is almost exhibit A in why white male professionals teaching white male theorists through white male TAs is a bad idea. I tried to sell my students on the idea that Lenin is really a great theorist of the capitalist state—Trump makes his line about the “thousands of threads” connecting the bureaucracy to the capitalist class almost comically clear—but the problem was that the professor really wanted them to understand what I consider the more ridiculous part of his theory, the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
It’s actually a beautiful vision, so absurdly beautiful that talking about it in a class about social reality seems borderline comical. Professor Burawoy wanted them to know how Lenin envisioned a transitional state, run by the workers, and tasked with “oppressing the oppressors” until all class antagonisms disappeared. Through rational planning and by rewarding people based on their work (rather than capital!), this dictatorship would rapidly build up the forces of production necessary for the “realm of freedom” Marx called communism, before withering away.
Fearful that this all-powerful transitional state might give rise to a new ruling class, Lenin envisioned officials “subject to instant recall” and “paid an average workingman’s wages”. The machinery of government could be so simplified that “any cook” could serve in a government where “talking shops” had been replaced with “working bodies” and the army dissolved in the name of the “armed workers”, until people learned to follow the “elementary rules of social interaction” and no force was necessary.
Like I said, a ridiculous theory. That’s what I told my students.
The problem was that, it being the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and all, and us being Marxists and all, we couldn’t resist making the final about, well, the Russian Revolution. We handed them some articles from Jacobin and the New York Times on a few key events and asked them to tell us what each theorist would make of them. This included asking them to tell us what Lenin would say about, you know, Lenin and his revolution.
Actually, we already know the answer. If on November 5th, he triumphantly declared, “Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state”, by the end of his life, he admitted, “Our state apparatus is so deplorable…we are ridiculously deficient.” Even he could see that his beautiful theory had little relation to what happened in Russia. And we wanted our students to ask why.
For some, the problem was the Bolsheviks themselves, who, as one incensed student wrote, “never incorporated the proletariat, never served the proletariat, and failed to create a collective conscience amongst the country.” Another, in true sociological fashion, told me that the problem was all structural: “Russia failed to follow Lenin’s blueprint for a transition to communism due to external factors such as the Civil War in Russia, foreign powers backed the opposition and invaded Russia, as well as the failure of socialist revolutions in surrounding countries.” You know, if socialism failed, it’s because of capitalism.
Almost none of my students took the tack I, after ten years of graduate school, would have. The theory is riddled with incoherencies and inconsistencies. State’s don’t “wither away” when their historical work is complete. Rulers don’t swap out with “any cook” and they don’t settle for “average workingmen’s wages”. No one can agree on what the “elementary rules of social interaction” are so it’s dumb to expect people to abide by them just because they’re no longer forced into selling capitalists their labor power.
But for most of them, the problem wasn’t the theory itself, but the human beings who implemented it, or rather, those that didn’t want to see it implemented. I sometimes comment on how distant my students seem from the model of undergraduates—18, full time student—that surrounded me at Princeton. But I’d like to imagine that I had that same spark of reckless idealism, a tiny bit of the same thing I imagine Lenin had in spades.