This Leninist freedom of choice — not “Life or money!” but “Life or critique!”

How, then, do things stand with freedom? Here is how Lenin stated his position in a polemic against the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionaries’ critique of Bolshevik power in 1922:

Indeed, the sermons which ... the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries preach express their true nature: “The revolution has gone too far What you are saying now we have been saying at[ the time, permit us to say it again.” But we say in reply: “Permit us to put you before a firing squad for saying that. Either you refrain from expressing your views, or, if you insist on expressing your political views publicly in the present circumstances, when our position is far more difficult than it was when the white guards were directly attacking us, then you will have only yourselves to blame if we treat you as the worst and most pernicious white guard elements."”

This Leninist freedom of choice — not “Life or money!” but “Life or critique!” — combined with Lenin’s dismissive attitude towards the “liberal” notion of freedom, accounts for his bad reputation among liberals. Their case largely rests upon their rejection of the standard Marxist-Leninist opposition of “formal” and “actual” freedom: as even Leftist liberals like Claude Lefort emphasize again and again, freedom is in its very notion “formal,” so that “actual freedom” equals the lack of freedom.” That is to say, with regard to freedom, Lenin is best remembered for his famous retort “Freedom yes, but for WHOM? To do WHAT?” — for him, in the case of the Mensheviks quoted above, their “freedom” to criticize the Bolshevik government effectively amounted to “freedom” to undermine the workers’ and peasants’ government on behalf of the counter-revolution ... Today, is it not obvious after the terrifying experience of Really Existing Socialism, where the fault of this reasoning resides? First, it reduces a historical constellation to a closed, fully contextualized, situation in which the “objective” consequences of one’s acts are fully determined (“independently of your intentions, what you are doing now objectively serves . . . “); second, the position of enunciation of such statements usurps the right to decide what your acts “objectively mean,” so that their apparent 11 objectivism” (the focus on “objective meaning”) is the form of appearance of its opposite, the thorough subjectivism: I decide what your acts objectively mean, since I define the context of a situation (say, if I conceive of my power as the immediate equivalent/expression of the power of the working class, then everyone who opposes me is “objectively” an enemy of the working class). Against this full contextualization, one should emphasize that freedom is “actual” precisely and only as the capacity to “transcend” the coordinates of a given situation, to “posit the presuppositions” of one’s activity (as Hegel would have put it), i.e. to redefine the very situation within which one is active. Furthermore, as many a critic pointed out, the very term “Really Existing Socialism,” although it was coined in order to assert Socialism’s success, is in itself a proof of Socialism’s utter failure, i.e. of the failure of the attempt to legitimize Socialist regimes — the term “Really Existing Socialism” popped up at the historical moment when the only legitimizing reason for Socialism was a mere fact that it exists . . . “

- Slavoj Zizek, On Belief (2001)

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