Ken Jowitt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Individual, Charisma, and the Leninist Extinction: Conversation with Ken Jowitt, Robson Professor of Political Science, U.C. Berkeley; 12/7/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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In your studies you focus, as a political scientist, on Marxist-Leninist systems. You pointed at some of the reasons that led you to those studies, and we are now interviewing you at the end of a century in which Marxist-Leninism has, in your words, become extinct. So we're going to imagine that you're the curator out of the Jurassic Park for Leninism and we'll let you be Richard Attenborough and help us understand what Marxist-Leninism meant for this century. What were its defining features as a political ideology?

Well it's quite remarkable. I think that, from one perspective, and obviously there are others, but from one perspective that's neglected, Leninism and Nazism were each, in different ways, perverse attempts to sustain and restore a heroic ethos and life in opposition to a liberal bourgeois individualistic system, which I obviously prefer. But if you look at the Bolshevik cadre and you look at the Nazi SS, both of whom were perversely murderous in the course of their histories, what one sees is an attempt to co-opt features of the industrial, urban, educated, scientific, technologically advanced world, while rejecting the liberal notion of individual liberty, of rational methodical acquisition, of the bourgeois, the entrepreneur, of law as procedure, of merit defined in terms of achievement, in favor of a fundamentally irrational, charismatic, ecstatic sense of being able to overcome the necessities of life. And in that sense they were attempted substitutes.

Now what makes Leninism more interesting than Nazism, because to be a Nazi all you had to do was buy a particular colored shirt, a torch, and sing at night.

Basically Nazism did not demand much in the way of intellectual conversion and intellectual commitment. It was fairly easy to join. Leninism intrigued me because it was, in a sense, a sociological discipline. It formally tried to understand what was happening in history. It had an empirical orientation. It had an intellectual corpus to it in Marx. And what fascinated me was that these modern elements were systematically subordinated to, not related to, but subordinated to this charismatic, heroic notion, not in an individual. I'm aware of Stalin and Mao and Ho Chi Minh and all the rest of them, but the defining principle of Leninism is to do what is illogical, and that is to make the impersonal charismatic.

Charisma is typically associated with a saint or with a knight, some personal attribution, and what Lenin did was remarkable. He did exactly what he claimed to do: he created a party of a new type. He made the party charismatic. People died for the party. It's as if people would die for the DMV. Most people don't get too excited about the Department of Motor Vehicles because it's a bureaucracy. What Lenin did was combine the attributes of personal heroism and the efficiency of impersonal organization, and created a charismatic organization. That's been done before. It's been done by Benedictines, it's been done by Jesuits, but it's never been done by a political party before. That intrigued me. When things that logically don't go together practically work, I'm intrigued.

Furthermore, what it did was compel the allegiance of people all the way from Peru to Kenya to Brooklyn. That's extraordinary, by definition. History, for the most part, is protestant. It is diverse. People are diverse, cultures are diverse. When you get an Islam or Roman Catholicism, or Leninism or a British liberalism, that, in effect, in some real way standardizes book cover diverse cultures over time, that's one of the remarkable moments in history, and I wanted to study this remarkable moment. And I did, and frankly I'm glad it's over, because I want to get on to other things.

Now in your book New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction, which includes essays that you've written over the course of your studies, you are constantly dealing with the contradictions implicit in the operation of this model, and what I'm curious about, looking back now, is what was the fundamental contradiction that brought this system down?

I think the fundamental contradiction is that it couldn't handle the individual, purely and simply. And it couldn't handle the individual in the form of the citizen. There's no better example than Solidarity. Solidarity is the mass movement, eight million out of thirty million Poles, [which emerged in] 1980 ...

Which became the major challenge.

Major challenge to the Communist party. What was the major challenge? The major challenge was that Solidarity argued that the individual as a moral person, as the source of integrity, as the entity responsible for its actions, the source of conscience, was to be juxtaposed to this corporate group, to this group outside of which you had no identity.

The Catholic church and the Communist party in formal terms are very much alike. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church said outside the church there was no salvation. The Communist party said the exact same thing. In Solidarity you didn't have one group against another group, you had an association of individual citizens, and ironically enough for a Marxist system, they were workers in effect saying, we don't need the tutelage of this group, we don't need you for salvation. And I think that was the undoing of communism, its inability to recognize in moral terms and in political terms the individual.

Now over the years many of its leaders tried in different ways to reform the system, make it work, and you write about them -- Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev. Was it inevitable that they all would fail for the reasons that you just gave?

I think the beginning of the end for Leninism was in 1956 when Khrushchev ended class war.

I think in every ideology you'll find an Augustine and an Aquinas. The Augustines are those who argue that they represent the superior and that the rest of the world is inferior; you have to attack the inferior, maintain the cohesiveness and the bounded quality of the superior. The city of God versus the city of man. Now, I'm not arguing Stalin was a Roman Catholic or an Augustinian, but in analogous terms they were the same.

As soon as you dissolve the tension between that superior group and the society, unless the group is willing to allow those people in society to be equal as individuals, there's only one thing that can happen to that group: it becomes corrupt. Aquinas, in effect, tried to revise the church to deal with the fact that the society had become more Christian. Khrushchev was Communism's Aquinas, but neither Aquinas nor Khrushchev allowed for the individual to become the major figure. Rather, the church stayed superior, even under Aquinas; the party stayed superior. What happened in the church? You got a Luther. What happened in the Communist Party? You got a Lech Walesa and an Adam Michnik. And what did they stand for? They stood for the appearance of the individual against the domination of that group.

In places like the Soviet Union, this inability had international consequences, because ultimately it meant that the party couldn't reform the party and therefore compete, say, with the United States.

That's right. What's even more remarkable is that the Soviet Union could never have been defeated. There are two points to that. First of all, many people accused those studying the Soviet Union of failing to predict this. Well, first of all, no one's Nostradamus; in fact Nostradamus wasn't Nostradamus. He just wrote so unintelligibly people say that he predicted things.

You can use it in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Exactly, which is more than appropriate. And quite simply, not only can you not be Nostradamus, if one looks at this whole question of whether the Soviet Union had to fall, I would argue it's more an issue of dialysis, not analysis. I mean, Andropov, who was the leader, basically his kidneys failed. (Andropov, head of the Soviet Secret Police, assumed office in the l980s but died shortly thereafter of natural causes.) Had Andropov been a healthy man, we'd be sitting here today talking about what the Soviet Union's doing. There was no inevitability that the Soviet Union had to fail at that particular point in time. It could have gone on for another twenty years. It had the world's third largest economy, thermonuclear weapons, second strike, all of these magical things.

The remarkable thing is that the Soviet Union went out with a whimper, not a bang. That, in effect, it dissolved itself; and my explanation for that's very simple. It was so corrupt, so rotten, that the individuals who made it up had no capacity to sacrifice for anything outside themselves and their family. And so it dissolved itself. It wasn't SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative], it wasn't the failure of the economy, it was terminal rot.

So it failed as a charismatic institution.

Exactly. And that's because with Khrushchev it did away [with class warfare] ... Every charismatic has to have combat. Otherwise you work for Wells Fargo.

It has to have what, I'm sorry?

You have to have a combat quality, there has to an enemy to sustain your need to convert the world. If you've converted the world, charismatics go out of business. And what Khrushchev said in 1956 is, we've defeated the internal class enemy and we've established parity with United States, which means all we have to do now is buy VCRs.

What could Andropov have done that Gorbachev couldn't do?

I think first of all, he wouldn't have dissolved the party. What he would have done was had a reform movement. He would have purged a lot of the corrupt people, he would have brought in less corrupt people, a younger generation, a more educated generation of a Soviet-trained elite. And they would have sustained it. Look at the Ottoman Empire: it took it 300 years to finally admit it was dead. Now why should an empire with thermonuclear weapons not stay around?

So what is the legacy of Marxist-Leninism?

That is a truly interesting and important question. The legacy is phenomenal in one sense, because history is not dialectical, but it certainly is ironical. Here you had a Marxist regime in some respects that has no legacy in the positive sense. Marx said every formation in history only falls apart when [from] within itself [it has] given rise to a new one. The Soviet legacy, in the sense of a new principle of organizing economic, social, and political life, gave us nothing. Gave us nothing! Its legacy is fragmentation. It's almost entirely a negative legacy. They created an industry of the nineties; unfortunately it was the 1890s. So, you know, it's not Silicon Valley; it's Pittsburgh of 1950. They didn't allow any association in society, so they left us no civil society, they left us no tradition or practice of citizenship. They gutted the state -- the party in effect didn't allow for a state or a society. They mis-developed the economy. What have they left us? I think there's a word for it. They left us a mess.

So the only legacy, in a way, was the men like Havel and Michnik who stood up against it and stood their ground and said no, as Luther had.

They left us highly principled, and for the most part, isolated individuals whom I admire greatly. Adam Michnik, I think, is one of the great figures of the 20th century, in large part because he's so human, by which I mean fallible. The sad thing is that the legacy was not in any way political. There was no liberal legacy, no political legacy. It was a legacy of charismatically ethical individuals who themselves are experiencing entropy, not in their personal lives but in terms of their impact on society. I think the real legacy in the ethical sense of communism is grubby materialism. The funny thing about Marxism-Leninism, if you read one of Marx's greatest pieces on the Jewish question, he talks about bourgeois society as made up of egos, competitive, hedonistic, selfish. There is nowhere in the world that that was as true as in communist countries. That's the legacy.

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