Lenin: Empire, Capital, and Revolution
What is socialism? Today the word usually describes national electoral projects encouraging states to redistribute wealth. A century ago, though, socialist politics included on its left flank an altogether different vision. From Italy to India, those who called themselves Bolsheviks sought transnational coordination to collapse empires and states, more often mobilising the language of emancipation than material equality. They were inspired by an insurrection in Russia, and by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—Lenin—at its helm. What can we learn, if anything, from reading Lenin’s works today?
“Leninism” has long been taken to name only the militarised politics of a disciplined vanguard party. In this course, we will challenge and move beyond that image. Lenin’s political thought was oriented around a theory of subjectivity and political agency, a neo-republican quest for popular power opposed to existing state apparatuses, a highly particular brand of anti-colonial internationalism, and a fear of oncoming catastrophe that ran against the grain of 19th-century faith in historical progress. Lenin’s social theory underpinned this politics with an account of global capitalist development far from identical to Marx’s older picture. Excavating it means coming into contact with a peculiar, potent, often misunderstood anti-capitalist possibility. In our first three classes, we will focus on Lenin’s treatments of political activity, then finance capital and imperialism as a lost transition to socialism before the ascent of the nation form, and then his anti-statism. We will reconstruct his thinking at length through What Is To Be Done?, Imperialism and his Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions, and then his “April Theses” and The State and Revolution—alongside other, lesser known texts. We will see how these different Lenins figured in studies by readers as diverse as Antonio Gramsci and Walter Benjamin, Ho Chi Minh and Jose Carlos Mariategui and CLR James, Mario Tronti and Andreas Malm. Finally, we will grapple with Lenin’s last writings, which ask: What follows when the romance of revolution has withered?
Course ScheduleSunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
September 19 — October 10, 2021