January 31, 2004

Paleo-Marxists revived!

Posted by Curt at 03:27 PM in Geek Talk, Politics | TrackBack

I find much fodder for further intellectual rancor in what I suppose purports to be a “re-valuation” of freedom along Leninist lines, with a title that plays off the title of a pamphlet by Lenin. The author and I start off, at any rate, on similar ground. His implicit question, which will find much sympathy at least among the angst-ridden, is the question as to how it is the case that, in a society in which no appreciable political or social limitations constrain us from achieving material and social prosperity that happiness is not more wide-spread. Rather than cavilling as to whether limitations do in fact constrain those whose desires lie outside certain societal norms, kleptomaniacs or serial killers for example, suffice us to re-open the question as to whether free choice can really be equated with happiness.

Lenin, for one, formulated a theory which separated “formal” from “actual” freedom, i.e. tried to make people aware that the simple ability to choose between several alternatives did not necessarily constitute true freedom, because the finite number of options presented to them itself represents a limitation on their freedom. To cut through all the gibberish in the article, the author’s point, quite simply, is that while this distinction in Lenin’s particular case may have been entirely self-serving, a ploy by which one could strip a people of all of their personal liberties in the name of freedom, his wider point has valid application in our society as well as his. And indeed it is not a false distinction to contend that the ability to choose between certain alternatives may not constitute freedom in the wider sense. However, it does not follow that such incomplete freedom necessarily equates to unhappiness, nor that the converse, total lack of constraint, would produce happiness.

In fact, I think the author has a good deal of sympathy for Lenin’s ultimate goals, and recognized that to achieve them would require a good deal of destruction. But this idea should sound the alarm for the rest of us. If the “actual” freedom propounded by Lenin requires the death of millions, not only the means should be criticized but also the goal. If the obstacles to existential freedom are the lives of so many, what kind of an ideal is this? Of course this is the root of my detestation for idealists of any stripe: for them, like mystics and Platonists, this existence we inhabit means nothing, is only a shadow obscuring the ideal, and hence the separate, actual existences of all the many peoples of the world can ultimately not be of the slightest concern or relevance to them, for they are simply the disappointing precursors to the ideal.

Hence, the very notion of “actual” freedom has a whiff of madness lurking upon it, particularly for those who remember Herder’s observation that a man holding a gun near a tower packed with explosives on a dark and stormy night has strange thoughts. Most of us are not disappointed that we ultimately do not realize these wild fantasies and desires, but rather are in the end relieved that something held us back. Nothing is easier to enjoy than the fate to which a man has resigned himself. I do not mean to devalue the concept of freedom entirely, but ultimately it is simply an abstaction with no corollary in the real world, as anyone who has chosen not to die will surely have come to understand (while technically true, I do not accept for a second the rationale behind the sophism that one cannot really choose that which is not possible). While the article may end on a resigned note, speaking of the inevitable limitations on human freedom, that seems to me no more than an emotional intermezzo until the next sensational idelogy plucks up his dreams of immortality again. While no one could agree more as to the vacuity and superfluousness of the meaningless choices with which we are confronted every day, especially that between the twin puppets of electoral politics, insisting that we reject them wholesale and embrace on a societal level the “real,” “dangerous” choices which lie beneath them, the sort of massive overturnings embodied by Lenin, seems to me to be an attempt to apply a parablist’s psychology to politics, a hideous monster in my opinion. We should realize in the end the abstractness of freedom; it is what Hegel called a regulative rather than a nominative end, i.e. a standard to hold one’s own conduct to, but not a real possible mode of human existence.


Curt -

When I read Zizek's article this morning, possibly because I was not yet fully awake, I couldn't quite put my finger on exactly what, he was trying to say in regards to freedom, or, how he actually felt about Lenin's theory. After rereading Zizek's piece, and your analysis, I think you are correct in noting that Zizek is sympathetic to Lenin's goals, and, in your final analysis itself.

Thanks for writing it up.

Posted by: John Venlet at January 31, 2004 07:19 PM

I mistakenly attributed the authorship of the pamphlet "What is to be Done?" to Tolstoy, whereas it was in fact written by Lenin himself. I have changed the error on my post so as not to disseminate false information rather than to try to conceal my error.

Posted by: Curt at February 1, 2004 06:00 PM