When I wrote in a recent post about “rhetorical Leninism,” what did I mean?
I recently read Victor Sebestyen’s biography of Lenin, and one of the most striking elements of it was the consistency with which Lenin adhered to a particular strategy — a strategy which almost everyone around him believed was counterproductive, but which he never abandoned: Abuse, condemn, and denounce every person in every party other than yours, and do the same to the doubters or waverers in your own ranks. “No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people!” — so Lenin famously cried, but for him the Mensheviks were the enemies of the people just as fully as were the social democrats like Kerensky and the most fervent supporters of Tsarist autocracy. For Lenin they were all the same. He who is not with us, and with us 100%, is against us and must be condemned. Again and again, people who considered themselves strong allies of Lenin and faithful adherents to his cause, expressed some minor dissent or critique and found themselves, to their great surprise, denounced and excluded, treated as though they were no different than the Tsarists. And for Lenin they weren’t.
To some degree Lenin’s policy reflects human nature. We often get more upset when we feel that we’ve been betrayed, or simply not supported, by friends than when we’re attacked by known enemies. What’s distinctive about Lenin is his elevation of this emotional tendency into an absolute political and rhetorical principle. And guess what? It worked. It brought people into line. It kept the Bolsheviks together, and when all the other factions of Russian political life had splintered, Lenin’s party, though it was small and weak, was the only one able to fill the vacuum created by the fall of the Tsar, and so came to power. And stayed in power for seventy years.
The Leninism of our moment is, as I have said, largely rhetorical, for which I suppose we should be thankful. But the real thing isn’t dead, and absolute itself most obviously in the White House, where anything except perfect loyalty to His Orangeness tends to meet with dismissal or, at best, internal isolation (hello, Jeff Sessions). The rhetorical element of the administration’s Leninism is left largely to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who faithfully imitates the style of her boss’s tweets. Now, the parallels are not perfect: Lenin was smart enough to insist, always, that he only cared about loyalty to the Cause, not to him personally, and this was a shrewd move — but one not available in Trumpworld, which manifestly has no cause or for that matter any principles other than self-aggrandizement. But the Leninist strategy is still doing hard work in the White House.
The purely rhetorical Leninism of our moment is largely, it seems to me, a strategy of the political and cultural left and is deployed most forcefully, it seems to me, against the nearer rather than the further enemy. Michael Sean Winters is going to be far more viciously mocking of Ross Douthat than of a fire-breathing integralist trad, because Douthat’s epistemic modesty and willingness to treat his opponents as decent people arguing in good faith, who might even have a good point or two to make, just might incline some people otherwise sympathetic to Winters’s own liberalism to have second thoughts. This cannot be allowed, and therefore Douthat cannot be allowed to make a good point or two either. He has no legitimate concerns, no legitimate viewpoints, no legitimate arguments. Please move along, nothing to see here.
Similarly, while there are plenty of real fascists out there, people might not think that Jordan Peterson, who holds plenty of recognizable liberal views, is dangerous, so: Fascist Mysticism! And since Charles Murray is pretty evidently no Richard Spencer: White supremacist! And the very idea that one should distinguish between what Murray wrote (or is thought to have written) in The Bell Curve and what he comes to campuses to talk about these days — I mean, come on.
As I wrote in How to Think, we live in an age of lumping, and the general goal seems to be to create just two big lumps, the goats and the sheep, the Wrong and the Right. Which is great, I suppose, if you want to run a dictatorship. There is precedent. But sometimes I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong. There’s got to be some better way for people to live.