Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Judas, De Quincey and Lenin: on the worse, the better

The famous phrase, “the worse the better”, is often attributed to Lenin. Supposedly, this is Lenin’s addition to the black book of political strategy, and no doubt in Hell he is discussing it over chess with Old Nick Machiavelli himself.

As far as I can tell, however, the phrase appears in Lenin’s works as a quotation from Plekhanov. In Three Crises, writing in 1917, Lenin sets himself the task of analyzing the revolution thus far – after the fall of the Czar. He remarks that so far, the demonstration, as a political form, has accrued a peculiar importance. And he backs away from the situation to analyze it:

The last, and perhaps the most instructive, conclusion to be drawn from considering the events in their interconnection is that all three crises manifested some form of demonstration that is new in the history of our revolution, a demonstration of a more complicated type in which the movement proceeds in waves, a sudden drop following a rapid rise, revolution and counter-revolution becoming more acute, and the middle elements being eliminated for a more or less extensive period.
In all three crises, the movement took the form of a demonstration. An anti-government demonstration — that would be the most exact, formal description of events. But the fact of the matter is that it was not an ordinary demonstration; it was something considerably more than a demonstration, but less than a revolution. It was an outburst of revolution and counter-revolution together, a sharp, sometimes almost sudden elimination of the middle elements, while the proletarian and bourgeois elements made a stormy appearance.

Contrary to the view that Lenin advocated a strategy of the worse, the better, Lenin was remarking that this strategy was being played out in the Russian revolution. It was a product of the natural history of the revolution, so to speak. The middle elements saw it, precisely, as a strategy because the middle elements did not understand the mechanism of class warfare. Thus, the middle was continually projecting intentions upon the Bolsheviks and the reactionaries, as though both were creating class warfare – when, to Lenin’s mind, the relationship was quite the reverse – class warfare was creating the Bolsheviks and the reactionaries.

Both we and the Cadets were blamed for the April 20-21 movement — for intransigence, extremes, and for aggravating the situation. The Bolsheviks were even accused (absurd as it may be) of the firing on Nevsky. When the movement was over, however, those same S.R.s and Mensheviks, in their joint, official organ, Izvestia, wrote that the "popular movement" had "swept away the imperialists, Milyukov, etc.", i.e., they praised the movement!! Isn’t that typical? Doesn’t it show very clearly that the petty bourgeoisie do not understand the workings, the meaning, of the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie?
The objective situation is this. The vast majority of the country’s population is petty-bourgeois by its living conditions and more so by its ideas. But big capital rules the country, primarily through banks and syndicates. There is an urban proletariat in this country, mature enough to go its own way, but not yet able to draw at once the majority of the semi-proletarians to its side. From this fundamental, class fact follows the inevitability of such crises as the three we are now examining, as well as their forms.

Let me admit that I, like Lenin, find class warfare to be operating here before either side becomes conscious of itself; the sides come into existence to express the warfare. However, once they come into existence, they quickly develop a semi-autonomy in which, of course, they try to dominate the field of possible political routines. This is why, even though they come into existence as the expression of class warfare, they remain in existence as the expression of political warfare.

But my interest here is really in that caught middle. That middle of paranoid dreamers. For, whatever the truth about Lenin’s real thoughts, the idea that Leninism follows a strategy of the worse, the better is a very attractive reading of Leninism from the middle viewpoint. I’d claim that it is a reading that precedes the Russian revolution. In fact, I’d like to claim that we can see the seed of the idea in an essay De Quincey wrote about Judas Iscariot.

This essay is best known through a reference to it in Borges’ ficciones. Borges explains De Quincey’s point briefly before moving on to the beautiful heresy of a Swede named Runeberg, who, contemplating the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, came to the conclusion that Judas was, in reality, the true god-man:

“God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible - all the way to the abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas.”

Runeberg’s theory is, in one sense, the final chapter, the logical conclusion of the middle’s paranoid dream. It is a dream that finds a Judas under every rock.

De Quincey, one of the world’s great dreamers, dreams of a Judas who looks much like the Lenin imago of all the Old Cold War boys. His Judas is one of Burke’s “theorizers” – the treasurer of the disciples, the shrewdest among this naïve group, but upon whom “had not yet dawned the true grandeur of the Christian scheme.”

Believing therefore as Judas did and perhaps had reason to do that Christ contemplated the establishment of a temporal kingdom -- the restoration in fact of David's throne; believing also that all the conditions towards the realisation of such a scheme met and centred in the person of Christ, what was it that upon any solution intelligible to Judas neutralised so grand a scheme of promise? Simply and obviously to a man with the views of Judas, it was the character of Christ himself, sublimely over gifted for purposes of speculation, but like Shakspere's great creation of Prince Hamlet not correspondingly endowed for the business of action and the clamorous emergencies of life. Indecision and doubt, such was the interpretation of Judas, crept over the faculties of the Divine Man as often as he was summoned away from his own natural Sabbath of heavenly contemplation to the gross necessities of action. It became important therefore according to the views adopted by Judas that his master should be precipitated into action by a force from without and thrown into the centre of some popular movement such as, once beginning to revolve, could not afterwards be suspended or checked. Christ must be compromised before doubts could have time to form. It is by no means improbable that this may have been the theory of Judas.

This outline of Judas’s relation to Christ sounds remarkably like the relationship of Pyotr Verkhovensky to Stavrogin. It also sounds like the kind of conspiratorial dream that entranced De Quincey, whose own dreams, massive opiate structures, seemed like conspiracies themselves, to whose inward meanings De Quincey had no privileged access, always the small man just outside the glass.

But to return to Lenin’s point, we should ask: why would De Quincey represent a middle that was being crushed? Wasn’t he living in the golden summer of equipoise, the Victorian age?

De Quincey wrote his essay in the Victorian age, but his sensibility, by his own account, was formed in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic age. Older than Hazlitt, he never gave himself to the revolutionary cause. He was a reactionary from the cradle – a romantic reactionary. It was not the Middle’s triumph that he saw, but the long twilight struggle with a growing, secretive mass of revolutionary societies that would do anything to undermine the middle. His politics were the precise correlate of his dreams, which were illuminated, from the inside, by symbols that seem to be stolen from the future.


Roger Gathmann said...

I'm ill! which is my excuse for that last paragraph. I don't think I quite put my finger on the increase in apocalyptic dread of the middle - how the worse the better seemed an inevitable movement that would evict them from the world as they knew it.

northanger said...

drink lots of water. feel better soonest.

Roger Gathmann said...

Ah, North, you should be a doctor! Actually, by simply wrapping myself in a blanket and dozing for 12 hours straight, I seemed to stop this cold in its tracks. It wasn't expecting me to use the old "hibernation" tactic. So now the cold is in its prissy final stages, but the game is up. Score: Roger 1, cold 0.

northanger said...

the hibernation trick is better! glad it worked out. constant peeing is, um, a pain in the ass. well, not for a guy i guess.

Roger Gathmann said...

North, it is funny that you should bring up constant peeing.

Years ago, I saw a horrific tv add, where this middle aged guy and his family are going on vacation or something, and they are towing a portopotty. The upshot of the ad was that middle age would be the age of pissing. This is something I've been dreading, but, having been middle aged for years now, it hasn't happened. In fact, maybe it never does happen. Like all good drug ads on tv, it sets up an improbability as an imminent menace and accordingly rakes in the profits from the mooks. We live in an interesting society in which we allow people to start lying rumors and profit royally on them, then get all scandalized at, I don't know, some stray comment by a politico or a DJ.