Leninism by numbers

Excerpt from Slavoj Žižek’s Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Human Capitalism

Lenin himself was not a ‘Leninist’: ‘Leninism’ is a retroactive construction of Stalinist discourse. The key to Leninism as (Stalinist) ideology is provided by Mikhail Suslov, the member of the Politburo responsible for ideology from Stalin’s later years up to the Gorbachev era. Alexei Yurchak pointed out that neither Khrushchev nor Brezhnev would release any document until Suslov had looked over it – why?

In 1990, Fyodor Burlatsky, a former advisor to Khrushchev and Andropov, described a technique that Suslov used to manipulate Lenin’s words. Suslov, who occupied the position of the Politburo’s head of ideology, had an enormous library of Lenin’s quotes in his Kremlin office. They were written on library cards, organized by themes, and contained in wooden file cabinets. Every time a new political campaign, economic measure, or international policy was introduced, Suslov found an appropriate quote from Lenin to support it. Once in the early 1960s, young Burlatsky showed Suslov a draft of a speech he prepared for Khrushchev. Having carefully studied the text, Suslov pointed to one place and said: “It would be good to illustrate this idea with a quote from Vladimir Il’ich [Lenin].” When Burlatsky replied that he would find an appropriate quote, Suslov interrupted: “No, I will do this myself.” Burlatsky writes: “Suslov dashed to the corner of his office, pulled out one drawer and put it on the table. With his long, thin fingers he started very rapidly flipping through the cards. He pulled out one and read it. No, that’s not it. Then he pulled out another one. No, still not right. Finally he took another card out and exclaimed with satisfaction, ‘Ok, this one will do.’”.

Lenin’s quotes in Suslov’s collection were isolated from their original contexts. Because Lenin was an extremely prolific writer who commented on all sorts of historical situations and political developments, Suslov could find appropriate quotes to legitimate as “Leninist” almost any argument and initiative, sometimes even if they opposed each other. Another writer remembered that “the very same quotes from the founders of Marxism-Leninism that Suslov successfully used under Stalin and for which Stalin so highly valued him, Suslov later employed to critique Stalin”.

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