How to begin from the beginning
Zizek, Slavoj (2009) How to begin from the beginning. New Left Review (57), pp. 43-56. ISSN 0028-6060.
In his wonderful short text ‘Notes of a Publicist’—written in February 1922 when the Bolsheviks, after winning the Civil War against all odds, had to retreat into the New Economic Policy of allowing a much wider scope to the market economy and private property—Lenin uses the analogy of a climber who must backtrack from his first attempt to reach a new mountain peak to describe what retreat means in a revolutionary process, and how it can be done without opportunistically betraying the cause: Let us picture to ourselves a man ascending a very high, steep and hitherto unexplored mountain. Let us assume that he has overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers and has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, but still has not reached the summit. He finds himself in a position where it is not only difficult and dangerous to proceed in the direction and along the path he has chosen, but positively impossible. In these circumstances, Lenin writes: He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit. The descent from the height that no one before him has reached proves, perhaps, to be more dangerous and difficult for our imaginary traveller than the ascent—it is easier to slip; it is not so easy to choose a foothold; there is not that exhilaration that one feels in going upwards, straight to the goal, etc. One has to tie a rope round oneself, spend hours with an alpenstock to cut footholds or a projection to which the rope could be tied firmly; one has to move at a snail’s pace, and move downwards, descend, away from the goal; and one does not know where this extremely dangerous and painful descent will end, or whether there is a fairly safe detour by which one can ascend more boldly, more quickly and more directly to the summit. It would only be natural for a climber who found himself in such a position to have ‘moments of despondency’. In all probability these moments would be more numerous and harder to bear if he could hear the voices of those below, who ‘through a telescope and from a safe distance, are watching his dangerous descent’: ‘The voices from below ring with malicious joy. They do not conceal it; they chuckle gleefully and shout: “He’ll fall in a minute! Serve him right, the lunatic!”.’ Others try to conceal their malicious glee, behaving ‘more like Judas Golovlyov’, the notoriously hypocritical landowner in Saltykov-Shchedrin’s novel, The Golovlyov Family: They moan and raise their eyes to heaven in sorrow, as if to say: ‘It grieves us sorely to see our fears justified! But did not we, who have spent all our lives working out a judicious plan for scaling this mountain, demand that the ascent be postponed until our plan was complete? And if we so vehemently protested against taking this path, which this lunatic is now abandoning (look, look, he has turned back! He is descending! A single step is taking him hours of preparation! And yet we were roundly abused when time and again we demanded moderation and caution!), if we so fervently censured this lunatic and warned everybody against imitating and helping him, we did so entirely because of our devotion to the great plan to scale this mountain, and in order to prevent this great plan from being generally discredited!’ Happily, Lenin continues, our imaginary traveller cannot hear the voices of these people who are ‘true friends’ of the idea of ascent; if he did, ‘they would probably nauseate him’—‘And nausea, it is said, does not help one to keep a clear head and a firm step, particularly at high altitudes.’ Of course, a metaphor does not amount to proof: ‘every analogy is lame’.
|School:||Birkbeck Schools and Departments > School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy > Philosophy|
|Research Centre:||Humanities, Birkbeck Institute for the (BIH)|
|Date Deposited:||07 Jan 2011 12:21|
|Last Modified:||05 Dec 2016 16:31|
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