- Interview by
- Owen Hatherley
Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichorn is a Bolivian-German theatre director and writer, who has worked with the Theatre of the Oppressed and Playback Theatre; for the self-published book Lenin 150 (Samizdat) he has commissioned an eclectic group of writers, activists and artists from more than twenty countries to comment on the 150th birthday of the Russian revolutionary.
The results combine poetry, post-colonial theory and political critique, with texts by Vijay Prashad, Ronald Grigor Suny, Wang Hui, Jodi Dean and Alain Badiou, among many others. Tribune interviewed Hjalmar about the project, and about the uses and abuses of Lenin’s name and ideas today.
Recently over here there was a controversy over a Young Labour branch in southeast London hosting a seminar on Lenin, celebrating, as this book does, his 150th birthday – various people opposed to the talk raised the questions of the Kronstadt rebellion, the brutality in the Civil War, the banning of opposition and so forth. The organisers of that talk could speak for themselves of course, but for you, why do you think we still need to talk about Lenin on the left?
At the risk of evoking an overly Eurocentric image, in what concerns our relationship with the communist experiences of the 20th century, I really think it’s about time we get off our all too (un-)comfortable Freudian couch, pulled the darn emergency break and re-routed the locomotive of history, with Lenin and Krupskaya receiving honorary working-class tickets to ride along. Needless to say that this is not about redwashing our communist failures, of which there were plenty – and disgustingly bloody ones at that – but really, how much longer do we want to engage in this pathological and often hysterical denial of the communist experiment, Vladimir Ilyich included? We have done so for several decades now and clearly, in the meantime the brave old world of unfettered hetero-patriarchal and colonial/racial capitalism has decidedly not become a better place to live for the overwhelming majority of us. So let us please own these failures of ours, make them part of our DNA, and finally get back to seriously reviving the communist horizon/hypothesis/idea/necessity/desire, as theorised by so many great comrades in recent years. Our book sees itself as contributing to the same movement. Sticking with Freud and Marx, it’s time for the long-overdue return of the repressed spectre of Lenin, albeit a thoroughly decolonised and de-patriarchalised, queer Lenin. In fact, over the course of his revolutionary life was Lenin not almost always the odd one out? It’s especially this oddball Lenin that definitely has some things to teach us still to get back onto the offensive.
How did you put the book together – i.e., who did you want to write for it, and why?
For us, the book is first and foremost an activist publication in critical solidarity with Lenin, and geo-politically conceived out of the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan. I say activist publication, because the original impulse to compose the book did not originate in a university setting and neither was our interest a purely scholarly one, the latter of which is of course a perfectly legitimate way of dealing with Lenin. We, however, wanted to invite texts that would ideally address both scholarly and activist concerns, so we totally left it up to the authors to choose their preferred style of writing, while encouraging everyone to think about Lenin from a sense of individual and collective political urgency and when appropriate from a personal perspective. In short, we wanted to go beyond the purely academic, often “historical” Lenin and do justice to the multiple Leninist subjectivities out there today, which ended up leading to chapters that range from the academic to the lyrical, including an interview with a female Lenin, the Swiss actress Ursina Lardi, and several more pamphlet-like texts such as the call for action provided by Vashna Jagarnath in the context of contemporary South Africa.
The reason I specifically mention Kyrgyzstan is because it serves as our literary Finland Station, i.e. the place/space from where our Lenins announce themselves. Therefore, it was important to us that its presence be palpable throughout the book, both in visual terms – the many images of Lenin in the Kyrgyz public space – as well as in textual terms. Finally, given all the neoliberal pressure and stress that way too many of us are subjected to day in, day out, what we encouraged was a writing with joy and a type of “chilin’ with Lenin.” It is the old man’s anniversary after all, and even though his capacity for personal austerity was very real, according to Krupskaya’s memoirs, he did enjoy the occasional drink and he certainly enjoyed being out and about in nature, so we thought why not try to express this more joyful spirit in our book as well.
There’s definitely a clear post-colonial approach to Lenin in a lot of these essays. Do you think it’s fair to say that readings of Lenin are quite different in (to use some examples in this book) the left in China, Bolivia, South Africa or India, than they are in Britain or the US? If so, why, and what can we learn from them?
I am not so fond of the post-colonial label, but we undoubtedly wanted to make sure we got people in the book who would write about the ongoing importance of Lenin from within their particular geo-historical contexts, many of which have indeed been shaped and continue to be subject to a devastating combination of colonial, capitalist and hetero-patriarchal domination. So yes, I do believe it’s fair to say that there are multiple Lenins out there, both with regards to how Lenin and the Soviet experiment influenced a great number of struggles in, say, the former Third World but also in relation to how the ultimate defeat of the USSR can be epistemically appropriated with regards to our future battles for some type of communist society. In short, we wanted to make sure that feminist/queer and black/coloured communist engagements with Lenin would play a prominent role in the book, though admittedly the final content is not entirely satisfactory in this regard. Still, we feel that the book does justice to Lenin’s internationalist vocation, with comrades from 20+ countries contributing. We also hope to further queer the old Ilyich for a possible future 2nd edition of the book. So if anyone feels called to write a piece from, for example, a Trans/Leninist angle, please do contact us and we will try to include it.
Linked to this, a lot of the book centres on Kyrgyzstan, the poor but liberal-democratic country which (aside from Belarus) has the most preserved Lenin statues left in the world; so there’s essays by Bishkek-based socialist scholars like Georgy Mamedov and Mohira Suyarkulova, translated poetry by Joomart Bokonbaev, and the book is illustrated throughout with photographs of various Lenins across the country. Why was Kyrgyzstan so important to you, and to the book, and why do you think Lenin (and Lenins) have survived there?
The first time I spent meaningful time in Kyrgyzstan was in 2011, doing Theatre of the Oppressed work with different activist groups in the Southern city of Osh, host to a gigantic Lenin monument left in the centre of town. We then went on tour through different cities in the region and almost everywhere we went there was a Lenin waiting for us, often in quite a decrepit state, but nonetheless hanging in there. Since then, I have returned to Kyrgyzstan almost every year, was privileged to see and work in many other parts of the country, met some amazing Kyrgyz and Kyrgyzstan-based comrades and came across many more Lenins stoically reminding us that “hanging in there” for some type of communist future is still urgently needed today.
Of course, over the years I met many Kyrgyz citizens who could not care less about Lenin and/or a replenished communist horizon, the main reason probably being that for the vast majority of people in the country everyday survival is really tough and therefore whether Lenin hangs around or not really does not make any difference to their lives whatsoever. Yet, time and again I also met people who would stress the importance of Soviet modernisation in Central Asia and the role Vladimir Ilyich played in it before his untimely demise. And then there are those who, increasingly disenchanted with the fake promises of neoliberal globalisation, are looking for possible responses to their predicaments neither in terms of a highly mythical post-Soviet nationalism nor in a purely backward-looking fossilised Soviet nostalgia – as legitimate as this latter option may be – but in a critical but solidary epistemic and affective re-engagement with the first large-scale experiment of creating a communist society, i.e. the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In sum, it was really the combination of my fascination for the strong physical presence of Lenin in the Kyrgyz public space coupled with local attempts to re-ignite the communist spark that made Kyrgyzstan the perfect context for the composition of Lenin 150 (Samizdat).
There has been quite a lot of trouble getting distribution for the book – the edition I’ve read is ‘Samizdat’ – ironically, a book largely in (nuanced, but nonetheless) praise of Lenin going by the same unofficial means that critical books had to in the old USSR. Why do you think the book had these problems? And what sort of readers are you hoping for?
Admittedly, what was on our mind when we started the book composition was not to find a publisher, but rather to enjoy the process of composing the book itself, especially visually engaging with the monuments and of course getting the texts in and working on them together with the authors. Hence, left from the start, and in spite of our total lack of financial resources, we were always conscious of the fact that we may have to self-publish and we communicated this to all (potential) contributors upon invitation. Having said that, once we knew that the book was going to materialise, we did try with several left publishers and unfortunately our experience was generally quite disappointing. Clearly, the advent of the Corona pandemic (with all its heavy financial ramifications for left book publishing) and the fact that we needed a publisher at short notice did not help our cause. Also, we intuited that our rather unorthodox, rogue approach to the subject matter may come back to haunt us eventually.
Anyway, the book is out and we have received a great deal of (critical) support from reader-comrades across the world, ironically hailing mostly from academia after all, but also from social movements and the occasional member of still active communist parties (bless them). So overall, no doubt this whole initiative was and continues to be a really fun birthday party. Thanks again to everyone for all your support. La lucha continúa!