#3-27: The Great Method
Today, Lenin’s political works are being entirely revisited through the canonical opposition between democracy and totalitarian dictatorship. Yet the truth is that this debate has already taken place. For it was equally on the basis of the category of democracy that from 1918 onwards, Western social democrats, lead by Karl Kautsky, attempted to discredit not just the Bolshevik revolution in its historical unfolding, but Lenin’s political thought as such.
What can still be of interest to us here, above all, is Lenin’s theoretical response to this official attack, which was contained in particular in the pamphlet that Kautsky published in Vienna in 1918 under the title The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and to which Lenin responded with his famous text, The Proletarian Revolution and Kautsky the Renegade.
Kautsky, as behoves a declared partisan of the representative and parliamentary political regime, puts almost all the emphasis on the question of the right to vote. What is altogether remarkable is that Lenin regards this procedure as the very essence of Kautsky’s ‘renegation’. Not that Lenin thinks that upholding the right to vote is in any way a theoretical error. On the contrary, Lenin thinks that it can certainly be useful, or even necessary, to participate in elections. He will reiterate this view with violence, against the absolute adversaries of parliamentary vote, in his pamphlet on leftism. What Lenin reproaches Kautsky with is far subtler and more interesting. Had Kautsky said: I oppose the Russian Bolsheviks’ decision to deny the right to vote to reactionaries and exploiters, he would have taken a stance on what Lenin calls an essentially Russian question, and not on the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general. He could then have entitled his pamphlet Against the Bolsheviks. Politically, things would have been clear. But this is not what Kautsky did. Kautsky claimed to intervene on the question of the dictatorship of the proletariat in general, and of democracy in general. To do this on the grounds of a tactical and localised decision in Russia is the essence of ‘renegation’. The essence of ‘renegation’ is always to argue from a tactical circumstance in order to renege on principles; to start from a secondary contradiction in order to pronounce a revisionist judgement on that conception of politics which defines it as a matter of principles.
I. “Method is detour,” Walter Benjamin once wrote cryptically. This short description might serve as an explanation of the German thinker’s way of working, in which nothing was ever attained as the result of a ritual of established steps that led towards a set goal, but rather through a procedure comprised of shortcuts, deviations, unconscious associations, labyrinths, turns, i.e. anything that involved indirect thought processes. Benjamin was suspicious of method because the elusive truths he sought could scarcely be discovered by means of pre-established and pre-determined approaches. But he did come to reveal his secret, at least partly: “The method for this work: literary montage. I have nothing to say. Only things to show. I am not going to uncover anything precious or attribute to myself spiritual formulae. But rags and castoffs: I do not want to make their inventory, but allow them to obtain justice in the only possible way: by using them.” Those are only two of the paradoxical approaches to any reflection on method(s) and methodology. More precisely, Benjamin imposed on himself a maxim he recommended to all critics: “never write a critique without at least one quotation from the work under review.” Along with its implication of appropriation, citation, collage, and montage, this strict rule can be seen as the most refined technique of a highly personalized method, interiorized and almost impossible to transfer. When Benjamin stated that the The Arcades Project “must develop to the highest point the art of quoting without quotation marks,” he was connecting this theory most closely with that of montage.