A.J. Polan: Lenin and the End of Politics

One of the more stimulating and thoughtful examples of progressive “left wing” pluralism is A.J. Polan’s Lenin & the End of Politics*. Polan’s book is not merely an attack on the political and historical outcomes of Bolshevism; it’s an attack on the very logic that underlies Lenin’s most democratic and emancipatory analysis of the state, The State and Revolution. The central assumptions that ground this text, Polan argues, form a fundamentally “causal” element (p. 129) in the creation of the totalitarian Soviet state. In other words, Polan takes issue with Lenin’s “best possible case” (p. 58), one where Lenin temporarily veers away from his vanguardist theories and discusses the possibility of a society run by local workers’ councils, or soviets.

At the core of Polan’s critique is an epistemological belief in the limitation of human understanding, which in turn leads to a view of politics that’s, at least in terms of values, irreducibly pluralistic:

“The political realm has to deal with questions to which no answers have so far been found that have the status of absolute truth and can command the assent of an entire populace. Politics, therefore, is fundamentally the contest of conflicting value orientations. The answers to these fundamental issues can never be derived and formulated in the language of rationality and calculability that is the proud possession of the [bureaucratic] administrators” (p. 105).

Buttressing Polan’s analysis is his belief in the historically specific Western consciousness, a consciousness that – following Sartre – is self-aware yet chaotic. In the language of post-modern thought, subjectivity is both the product of and scourge to regularized power. The modern individual is a matter of possibility “produced by ‘conscience’, the possibility of choice. This is the ambiguous burden which the world of modernity inscribes in the heart of the human soul” (p. 213).

According to Polan, Lenin rejects such a view and invokes the Marxist equivalent of Rousseau’s general will (p. 73). The antinomies of Kant’s modern Man are reduced to a single Identity (p. 136 ff.). From the vantage point of the working class (and the Party), Lenin is incapable of viewing dissent or difference as anything but error. And since the Bolsheviks know the irrefutable truth, Lenin (and not just Stalin) is incapable of tolerating politics. To Lenin,

“[p]olitics is private self-interest made public. Thus Lenin’s first move is to abolish any possible distance between the gross economic position of an individual and his motivations; to abolish any space for ‘values’, and consequently, disagreement over values” (p. 175).

Lenin does what politicians of any age have done to their opponents: label their views as merely self-interested, and without principle or merit. But going beyond Western practice (at least until Fox News), Lenin’s opponents are “delegitimized a priori” (p. 174). Enforced by the Cheka and the Red Army, Lenin moves quickly to quash any possible opposition from the outside (liberals and Socialist Revolutionaries) and from within (the “Leftists” and the “labour aristocracy”). Opposition, in other words, is liquidated rather than regularized in parliamentary institutions. In Lenin’s view, why regularize falsehoods?

In the end, the key lesson I take from Polan’s book is that your view of truth has a critically important impact on your political theory, and it must be a consideration during any point of research, analysis and reconstruction. Alongside a view of human nature, a theory of knowledge is a necessary foundation for how you interpret the nature of political life, and formulate essential concepts like politics, autonomy and power.


* Polan, A.J.. Lenin & the End of Politics. Oakland: U. of California Press, 1984.

Posted by Colin Welch at 1:05 PM
Edited on: Monday, August 09, 2010 6:46 PM
Categories: Books, In a Philosophical Mood


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