Lenin: The Heritage We (Don’t) Renounce, eds. Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn and Patrick Anderson (Daraja Press and Kickass Books 2024), 364pp. Lenin: The Heritage We (Don’t) Renounce, eds. Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn and Patrick Anderson (Daraja Press and Kickass Books 2024), 364pp.

A highly various collection of short essays on Lenin contains much that is original and of interest, even if it is uneven in parts, finds Kevin Crane

The centenary of Lenin’s passing will quite naturally encourage a flurry of writing and books about the man, we could all expect that. What we might expect less is a book that is itself a flurry of writing about him, which is what Kickass Books have given us here. Reviewing The Heritage We (Don’t) Renounce poses something of a challenge because even summarising what it ‘is’ is somewhat difficult, beyond the most banal details. The book is a collection of 100 plus contributions, mostly commentary so concise that they barely constitute essays, each written by a different author with no mandate other than that it connect to Lenin in some way.

The editors have consciously gone for the most intentionally eclectic approach possible. The various snippets are in an almost desperately random order, with critiques of Lenin’s writing jumbled up amongst biographical recollections, reports on current events and bits of poetry and fiction. It’s the text equivalent of random play on your MP3 collection, and much like random playing your MP3 collection, the sequence may work for you or may not at any given moment (and I’d be lying if I didn’t find myself reaching for ‘skip’ at certain points).

The scattershot approach does throw up some interesting recurring themes. To my tastes, a wealth of strong pieces came from the Global South contributors talking about Lenin’s unique contribution to the socialist analysis of imperialism and how this relates to the struggle against neo-colonialism today, particularly in African countries. A few of the contributions in this area genuinely got me thinking, especially about the emergence of the radical military juntas in West Africa, which may well be the cutting edge of a new front against imperialism. Whatever critiques we might have of the armed forces as a vehicle for change, it does seem persuasive to me to argue that Lenin would tell us to look for the revolutionary potential of these developments, and not to join the choir of pro-systemic voices denouncing them.

One feature of a discussion about colonialism conspicuously underplayed is the question of Palestine. We cannot really criticise the editors for this too much – the Gaza genocide likely had not commenced as this book was going to press – but the timing is very unfortunate as it just feels strangely absent from discussion.

Either way, there are easily more than a dozen pretty good mini essays in this area of the book’s scope, and some of them could have been much longer. Other fields in which the book is at least interesting are those that engages with Lenin and women’s liberation and sexual politics, which make up a good chunk of the essays and genuinely provide some good commentary on an underexamined area of Lenin’s thought. There is also some good material about Lenin’s training and work as a lawyer with suggestions as to how this had informed his thinking about revolution, which I don’t think I’d ever read about before.

Reflections on Lenin’s legacy in the former Soviet world were worth reading, particularly in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the fascinating irony that both Vlad Putin and Vlad Zelenskyy mutually blame, for their own self-serving and entirely contradictory reasons, Vlad Lenin for the conflict happening at all. A poignant reflection on Lenin in Hungarian communist art also appealed to me personally, as this is something I recently learned a lot about in Budapest.

A particular gem, perhaps my favourite single piece, was titled Ecological Leninism and Proletarian Agency by American academic Matt Huber. It’s an excellent little discussion about the challenges of the revolutionary socialist movement to engage with climate change, which is something on which we urgently require more writing. The downside here is that the scarcity of writing extends to this book: the piece is almost the only one that really mentions climate change.

Diversity and structure

That is not to say that these writings lack variety. Inevitably, however, such a diverse contribution base means that not everything will appeal to everyone. Some of the articles felt excessively modish and under-argued. The more literary and poetic parts are just not for me: I have never read poetry for my own entertainment, and this did not move me to change that position. This, though, is not my real criticism of the book.

The main problem I have with The Heritage We (Don’t) Renounce is that its refusal to adhere to any structure means that where the good parts exist, they are buried and disconnected from other elements with which they would be compatible. As I have said, I liked most of the contributions relating to Africa, but I cannot easily recommend reading those, short of listing the specific articles: they are scattered through the length of the book and even the chapter titles do not reveal which ones are which. Honestly, I think this project would have benefitted from grouping its content into super-headings such as ‘Lenin and Imperialism’, ‘Lenin and Democracy’ and so on, so that it would be much easier to dip into the parts that most piqued your interest.

Contributions being commissioned in total isolation from each other also produces several anomalies with the flow of reading. Numerous writers touch on the same areas of Lenin’s life and work, which makes for unintentional repetition in some cases, and potential interesting points of disagreement that go unexamined in others. Some writers reference each other, but not knowingly so, which gives us the strange experience of Slavoj Zizek and Lars T Lih being quoted, sometimes in disagreement, only for Zizek and Lih to turn up later in the book without knowing that they should perhaps have responded to something someone else said.

It may be that readers who are more keyed into the academic scenes in which a lot of these contributors are involved would get more out of this book, and possibly be able to follow up the writings that they found most engaging. I struggle to recommend it to a more general socialist audience. It is much too unfocused to help someone new to studying Lenin get a handle on what he was about. For more familiar readers, it’s a bit frustrating that there are no through-lines of argument, and no developed conclusions. All in all, a mixed bag, which was intentional, but you’ll have to be the judge of whether or not that’s what you’re after.

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