Lenin and Gandhi

A missed encounter?

RP 172 () / Article

The theme I shall address today has all the trappings of an academic exercise.* Still, I would like to attempt to show how it intersects with several major historical, epistemological and ultimately political questions. As a basis for the discussion, I will posit that Lenin and Gandhi are the two greatest figures among revolutionary theorist–practitioners of the first half of the twentieth century, and that their similarities and contrasts constitute a privileged means of approach to the question of knowing what ‘being revolutionary’ meant precisely, or, if you prefer, what it meant to transform society, to transform the historical ‘world’, in the last century. This parallel is thus also a privileged means of approach to characterizing the concept of the political that we have inherited, and about which we ask in what senses it has already been and still needs to be transformed. Naturally, such an opening formulation – I was going to say, such an axiom – involves all sorts of presuppositions that are not self-evident. Certain of them will reappear and will be discussed along the way; others will require further justification. Allow me briefly to address several of them.

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* This is a revised version of a lecture originally written for the Congrès Marx International IV, ‘Guerre impériale, guerre sociale’, Université de Paris X Nanterre, Plenary Session, Saturday 2 October 2004. It was published in French in Étienne Balibar, Violence et Civilité, Editions Galilée, Paris, 2010. It is translated here along with a new Afterword.