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"We need to be reiterating the benefits of Brexit. This is so important in the history of our country, it’s Magna Carta, it’s the burg...

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Hello, Lenin!

Sometimes – history needs a push’ (Lenin)

As the Kremlin agonises over its plans to commemorate the centenary of the October Revolution, the Trump administration is busy organising an historical re-enactment. In 2013 Steve Bannon, now the president’s closest advisor, told an interviewer that he was a ‘Leninist’ because he aimed to ‘bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment’. He has recently claimed that he does not recall the conversation, but his other public statements leave little room for doubt: ‘we think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti’ the permanent political class’.

‘We cannot expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism’ (Lenin; January 1918)

Whilst Trump’s critics have focused intently on his suspected links to the current Russian government, his adoption of Leninist political methods has received less scrutiny. The first point stinks merely of corruption and carelessness; the latter openly exposes the hollowness of the Trump claim to embody American traditions and values. Of course, Bannon and Trump are not communists any more than they are liberals or conservatives; they are simply narcissists who are willing to borrow from any political tradition in pursuit of their goals. They have no time for the soppy, sentimental ideas expressed in the motto of the American republic: E Pluribus Unum. They thrive instead on the assertive masculinity of the language of war and destruction, a ‘braggadocious’ political style that runs directly counter to the classical traditions of American conservatism, embodied in the dictum of President Theodore Roosevelt, who advised his successors to ‘talk softly, and carry a big stick’.  As a Leninist, Trump prefers to be the centre of attention, and regards political discord not as something to be avoided but as an essential tool for purging his enemies.

A black-and-white photograph of a crowd scene.  A bald, goateed man stands on a platform in the centre-left, speaking dramatically to the crowd.
Lenin in full flow, Moscow 1920
One man with a gun can control a hundred without one’ (quote falsely attributed to Lenin)

The Leninist style that Trump imitates combines naked opportunism with the purest hypocrisy. In order to return to Russia in April 1917, Lenin accepted funding from Imperial Germany, publicly lied about it, and then fled the country when his connections were exposed, leaving his supporters to their fate. As luck would have it, Lenin’s disorganised opponents collaborated to enable him to make a triumphant return in October, whereupon he trampled on his previous promises to empower the people, and instead established a dictatorship of the party that lasted for seven decades. Before October 1917, Lenin had bitterly denounced the violence of the state against intellectuals and radicals; in power, he presided over a brutal reign of Terror that showed that the mistake of the tsar was simply that he wasn’t brutal enough. Trump is animated by similar contradictions. As a candidate, he raised concerns that the election would be rigged against him; as a winner he poured scorn on the bad losers who refused to accept the result.  As a candidate he surfed a wave of half-truths and probable lies to build up his supporter base; as president, he castigated as ‘fake news’ a report from within his own intelligence service that alleged inappropriate Russia influence over his campaign. He talks of avoiding unnecessary foreign wars and of annihilating Isis, of liberating the free market and ‘creating jobs’, of reuniting America and imprisoning his opponents. The mistake is to imagine these are absent-minded contradictions; instead they are intrinsic to the brand of the anti-politician on the make.

Image result for felix dzerzhinsky statue
'The Iron Felix': Statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who was appointed by Lenin to head the Bolshevik secret police in the aftermath of the October Revolution. He was, by all accounts, extremely good at his job.

‘There are no morals in politics, there is only expedience. A scoundrel may be of use to us just because he is a scoundrel.’ (Lenin, or possibly Steve Bannon)

Robert Conquest, the distinguished historian of the USSR, once wrote that ‘everyone is a conservative about the things they care about’ It follows that those who care about nothing are willing to smash everything, whilst denouncing the short-sighted sentimentality of those who stand in their way. At the heart of the ‘paranoid style’ cultivated by the new president and his team, there lurks a profound nihilism. Like Lenin, Trump wears his patriotism as a mask that conceals contempt for his compatriots, and a cynical determination to exploit their grievances for his own political advancement. The least convincing moment in Trump’s inauguration speech was the one in which he claimed that ‘we will be protected by God’. There have been US presidents who have really believed this, but no one could mistake Trump for one of them. He said it simply because he knew that it would simultaneously please and annoy all the right people. Similarly, when Lenin called for ‘all power to the Soviets!’ in 1917, no right-minded individual interpreted this to mean that, once Lenin seized power he would immediately transfer it into the hands of the popular tribunes of the working-class. Instead, he used the words that maximised his political advantage and sowed confusion amongst his enemies.

Sweeping away the establishment...

‘One step back, two steps forward’ (Title of 1904 work by Lenin)

As with Lenin, Trump’s greatest political asset has been his ability to make dishonesty look authentic, and narcissism look like leadership. Will he be able to sustain these contradictions in office? At his inauguration, Trump stated: ‘this American carnage stops here.’ Instead, there have been a series of actions, culminating in the executive order banning immigration from seven countries, that have intentionally caused legal, political and human carnage. The resulting drama and noisy debate have dominated the headlines and prompted wild speculation on Trump’s true intentions. Many on the political left call him a fascist set on destroying American democracy. Some on the right are even more delusional: they think he actually shares their principles, and seeks to rework the economy in favour of middle America at the expense of the so-called ‘liberal elite’. All this is to make the mistake of assuming that Trump has any goals at all beyond the identification and destruction of those who oppose him. In this respect, he is all about the journey rather than the destination. Where he senses his opponents’ weakness, as on immigration, where the Left is out of touch with ordinary Americans, he strikes with ruthless and divisive precision. When he fears that he has gone too far, he backtracks. During the campaign, he was happy to encourage his supporters’ fantasies of prosecuting Clinton and ending Obamacare; in office, he has been equally happy to drop such talk as counter-productive. Such inconsistency offers superficial grounds for reassurance, as if there exist a core of reasonable political principles that he will not be able to disturb. But Trump’s destructive nihilism offers no long-term exemptions, and liberals should steel themselves against such complacency. In staging their re-enactment of the October Revolution, the president’s men will have learned from Lenin that those who seek to destroy the establishment only need to be lucky once.

Photograp of Lenin taken whilst he was in exile in Switzerland in 1916.

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