Lenin’s advice to South African activists

October 25, 2010

The joke goes: Marx, Engels, and Lenin areasked whether they would prefer to have a wife or a mistress. As expected, Marx, rather conservative in private matters, answers, “A wife!” while Engels, more of a bonvivant, opts for a mistress. To everyone’s surprise, Lenin says, ‘I’d like to have both!” Why? Is there a hidden stripe of decadent jouisseur behind his austere revolutionary image? No-he explains: “So that I can tell my wife that I am going to my mistress, and my mistress that I have to be with my wife … ” “And then, what do you do?” “I go to a solitary place to learn, learn, and learn!” – Zizek, Violence, p8

This apparently was Lenin’s advice to young people asking him what they should do. This is also what Zizek suggest we do in our context of being bombarded with images of violence. And this, I suggest, is the advice those calling for change in South Africa need to hear.

In various ways we seem to be forced into facing two false choices (and sometimes only one false choice), into choosing immediately, while the complexity of what we face in actuality require that we learn, learn and learn.

One of my favorite examples I found in my undergraduate years*. In true undergraduate fashion (sadly lost upon many undergraduates) I occupied my time thinking about the critique which can be delivered onto the status quo: both within theology and society. Being a verbal thinking and possibly somewhat overconfident, I would at times even spend time on the preposterous activity of attempting to formulate these questions in the presence of those of senior years.

This would lead to the usual critical reactions, pointing to the problems in my young argument, educating the youth into the finer arts of political correctness etc (all of these lessons which has some form of value). But at times these questions would actually hit a nerve, question an element which all would know really is problematic within the status quo. Fighting from the corner, one strategy under such circumstances would be to force the young undergraduate into a false choice:

In very blatant fashion the conversation partner would simply state that before criticism of the reigning status quo might be delivered, an alternative should be put onto the table. Until the alternative choice was fully conceived and tested, criticism of the status quo should be left unsaid. But this very strategy actually points to the fact that not only the young undergraduate, but also the conversation partner need a third option: learn, learn, and learn. Using this strategy admits to the complexities that exist, and the fact that the options on the table isn’t sufficient in solving the problems. Neither the status quo, nor the quick alternative, seem to be viable options. Pushing for acceptance of the status quo through use of this kind of argument is not only a form of violence by those holding the dominant position, but also admitting that the current state of affairs is not sustainable.

Again, this calls both voices in the conversation, not just the one delivering the critique, to a third position: learn, learn, and learn. I believe this is the position we need in South Africa today, the element missing from our public conversations: those who commit to Lenin’s advice.

*This didn’t stop after my undergraduate years


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