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Monday, November 20, 2006

the agent people, the percipient state

Imagine, then, Lenin.

In 1900, when Lenin began his second tour of exile in Europe, he was in his thirties, and had been active in clandestine revolutionary activity in Russia for the last decade. He came out of that experience of organizing, writing and prison with two ideas. One was a newspaper – which became the Iskra – and one was a party.

Lenin’s second objective is the whole point of 1902’s What Is to be done? LI is not interested in the infinite ins and outs of the history of Bolshevism, proper, so much as trying to understand the idea of a highly intelligent man from a state in which there was little to no experience of parties, as they developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, re-inventing the whole concept. Lenin, then, is dreaming. Not that the dream is uninformed by the historical experience of parties in Europe – most notably, the Social Democrats in Germany. But he is dreaming of a party that will play a different role than any party has played before. In Lenin’s dream, the party will found the revolution – and, beyond the ultimate question of the state’s always to be put off dissolution , that means it will found the state.

Of course, as James Scott points out, Lenin is wrong in the case of Russia – the revolutions came about spontaneously, just as the people he denounced said they would. And in 1905 and 1917, Lenin quickly accommodated to that fact – but the party he founded acted as though they had created the revolution. The thing that is important to LI is that this conception of the function of the party is something new, something that theorizes the way parties will be throughout the twentieth century.

This role is new. No revolution in the past came about through the organization of a party. Parties formed as secondary political characteristics of the state. The change, perhaps, comes first in the U.S. –one could argue that the Republican party, under Lincoln, is the first party to expand its role to something more than a loose confederation of likeminded people seeking the power of office, becoming a nation-builder.

But Lenin was the one who saw the party most clearly as a new dispositif, to use Foucault’s term. Or, to use the terms of LI’s last post , there was a new dialectic of agent and percipient set up by Lenin’s notion of the party.

The Lockean-Rousseau-ian state had been founded on a semi-magic relationship between the people and the state. The people were the Agent, sending their thoughts to the great state Percipient. The thoughts are, of course, not natural phenomena, but the phenomena of a will – and just as the agent is controlling, in some small way, the percipient, so, too, the Agent people is controlling the state Percipient, which represents the people’s will.

Into this duality, Lenin introduces the party, which is again shaped around an agent/percipient relationship. But by this time the constants had been loosened – the agent’s will might well actually reflect the work of the percipient, who is not simply the naïve, the young lady sleeping in the bed who wakes up to see the face of the baron who is transmitting her thoughts to her on a dark street, but has played her own trump cards – has found a role as a theorizer, dropping her own suggestions into the mind of the agent.

Lenin finds his textual source for the party’s role in Engels. That’s the bit of What is to be done LI will look at next, in some other post.

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