Steve Bannon, the jowly former chairman of Breitbart and Donald Trump’s chief strategist, has an interesting grasp on history, and enjoys comparing himself to an impossible litany of historical and fictional figures. He’s likened himself to Darth Vader and the ruthless 16th-century leader Thomas Cromwell, who came to a bad end at the hands of his employers. Most ominously, he told The Daily Beast last August that he was a “Leninist” who wanted to “destroy the state.” This might have been his most revealing, and incriminating statement, as he later said he didn’t recall the conversation. What does it mean that Bannon takes Vladimir Lenin, the greatest Communist revolutionary of the 20th century, as his political guru? Is Lenin’s writing a user’s manual for him? Or does his interest in Lenin point to his desire to enact some kind of historical cosplay? What can Lenin tell us about Bannon?
First, we must address the oddness of a radical right-winger like Bannon identifying himself with an orthodox Marxist. But hybridity with the thought and style of the extreme left is part of the tradition of the extreme right. Benito Mussolini began his political career as a socialist, and there was a diehard anti-capitalist wing of the Nazi party, whose full name, after all, was “National Socialist German Workers Party.” The recognition that the disciplined Communist East reflected a preferable society, in some ways, to the decadent West is a theme that far-right thinkers returned to in the Cold War. In the 1980s, the French New Right thinker and alt-right favorite Alain de Benoist famously said, “Better to wear the helmet of a Red Army soldier than to live on a diet of hamburgers in Brooklyn.” Bannon has crossed the ideological aisle before: Writing on Breitbart, he praised the North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap, who led troops to defeat France in 1954 and the United States in 1975, for his military virtue.
In telling The Daily Beast that he wanted to “destroy the state,” it appears Bannon probably has read parts of Lenin’s The State and Revolution or at least the Bolshevik Revolution Wikipedia page. But a serial historical analogizer like Bannon is always on the hunt for parallels. His reading habits have been making the news as a terrified public tries to figure which book holds the key to how his brain works. A New York Times sportswriter caught Bannon in an airport reading David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, which tells the story of the establishment arrogance and myopia that led to the Vietnam War. (He told the writer he was reading it as a guide of what not to do.) The Times also recently drew attention to the fact that Bannon seems to have a familiarity with the writings of Julius Evola, a bizarre Italian fascist whose unreadable gibberish mixes Eastern mysticism and pseudo-scientific racism. (Mussolini ended up being not hardcore enough for Evola, who preferred Hitler’s SS.) Bannon also has been reported to pore religiously over Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and the Bhagavad Gita. We already know he has a taste for this kind of cyclical thought: He’s a big fan of the The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, a book that conceives of history as having seasons.
But back to Lenin. The State and Revolution was written after the February revolution of 1917 that overthrew Czar Nicholas II, but before Lenin’s Bolshevik party was able to seize power. In the summer of that year, Lenin had gone into hiding in Finland because the provisional government suggested that it had evidence he was a German agent, and it was during his Finnish hideout that he composed this theory of revolution. The tract has a remarkably direct and simple analysis of the nature of government. The state, in Lenin’s telling, is just a “special body of armed men and prisons,” whose sole purpose is the suppression of the proletariat. In a revolution, the working class has to turn the tables on the bourgeoisie, form a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and start suppressing them right back. But in Lenin’s vision, the proletarian state will not be “special bodies of armed men” anymore. Lenin instead saw the “entire proletariat in arms” rising up, ushering in a true democracy, and then the state would wither away. This did not come to pass: The proletariat in arms did not reliably follow Bolshevik wishes, and “special bodies of armed men” had to be relied upon again. One of those “special bodies of armed men,” the secret police, is arguably the only successful and lasting institution the Soviet Union managed to create. It now supplies the Russian Federation with its president and much of its ruling class.
It appears Bannon has read parts of Lenin’s The State and Revolution or at least the Bolshevik Revolution Wikipedia page.
Leninism was a philosophy of struggle, and it was conceived in battle. As Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution: “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them…” This is certainly true for Lenin. He survived imprisonment, exile, assassination attempts, a failed revolution, a successful one, and a civil war. Unlike Bannon, who quotes the Bhagavad Gita at friends, the vocabulary of combat was not mere pretense for Lenin. Bannon looks more like a Brezhnev-era gerontocrat than an Old Bolshevik terrorist: Lenin was lean and puritanical, while Bannon is rotund and, if his complexion is any clue, an indulgent drinker. What Bannon and Lenin share is the tendency to see war and violence as paradigmatic. Lenin was fond of quoting the 19th-century Prussian general Clausewitz’s dictum: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” He made clear that this worked in both directions: Politics was also the continuation of war by other means. There can be little doubt that a war nerd like Bannon would agree.
To Lenin, everything was a weapon. He did not believe in the freedom of the press, because, as the Bolshevik decree proscribing the free press put it 1917, “Everyone knows that the bourgeois press is one of the most powerful weapons of the bourgeoisie.” He did not believe in “formal democracies” and “democratic republics,” because he thought they were just elaborate ruses of war devised by the bourgeoisie, who had used representative government and universal suffrage to bamboozle the masses. In The State and Revolution, he wrote that the institutions of democratic republics have to be destroyed, not just replaced with new representatives, because “a democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell … it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions, or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.” As soon as it was possible to destroy nascent liberal democracy in Russia, Lenin took the opportunity.
As soon as it was possible to destroy nascent liberal democracy in Russia, Lenin took the opportunity.
For all his purported American nationalism, Bannon appears to hold this Leninist picture of politics. The institutions of the U.S. government are not an end-in-themselves to Bannon: They are battlefields or weapons. Nationalist he might claim to be, he is not a patriot. One can detect his cynicism on that point in his sarcastic remark to The New York Times, when he said that the publication was “the paper of record for our beloved republic.” Like Lenin, who believed his party incarnated the true revolutionary spirit no matter what the proletariat actually said they wanted, Bannon seems to believe that he’s championing a vital force “deeper” than the republic: the working class, the nation, the master race — all the fetishes of the 19th century that turned into the bloody altars of the 20th. This explains his flirtation with European far-right nationalist parties, like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, that are so alien to the mainstream conservative tradition in the United States, to this point highly individualist and suspicious of nationalism as an attack on local and personal autonomy.
Again, taking on a historical mantle based on a facile analogy is not limited to Bannon and the nationalist far right. Neoconservatives shared this pretentious habit: They imagined they were furthering the course of history by spreading liberal democracy. In 2006, Francis Fukuyama labeled the Neoconservative movement Leninist, which has some basis in fact as many Neocons got their start on the Trotskyist left. But they did not publicly cop to their conceits like Bannon. Their chosen avatar of revolution was nearly as preposterous: George W. Bush was to be their Napoleon, a role Trump is just barely more suited for by virtue of derangement. It shouldn’t really shock anyone that a Neocon, Michael Anton, who used to write under the name “Decius,” after the Roman consul Publius Decius Mus who infamously sacrificed himself in battle, jumped ship from the Weekly Standard gang and started working for the Trump administration.
It’s not clear whether Bannon’s “Leninist” quote was just a provocative joke, a statement of real philosophical affinity, or just a very pretentious remark. It probably contains elements of all three. Bannon the troll knows how to get a rise out of people. But Bannon the self-styled radical intellectual shares the Leninist contempt for deliberative institutions, the Leninist belief that he and his small band authentically embody a larger historical struggle, and the insistent use of metaphor of warfare for all politics. A former banker and movie producer, Bannon is not a “professional revolutionary,” to borrow Lenin’s favored phrase for his Bolshevik comrades. The Bolsheviks were a hardened organized conspiracy in the years leading up to the revolution: They engaged in terrorism, robbed banks, and dodged the Czarist secret police. Even if Bannon’s Leninism is an imposture, it’s not a healthy fantasy for any politician in a democratic republic.
Such grandiosity is easy to mock, but it has clear use in the Trump administration. We know Trump is unable to tell the truth. Lying on that scale requires a vast supply of self-deceptions that most people are not capable of sustaining. Con men and frauds invent exotic backstories for themselves for this purpose, like Bannon’s superficial historical analogies and personal conceits. In the Trump administration, Bannon is less an intellectual revolutionary like Lenin, who read the German Idealist philosopher Hegel’s impenetrable Logic on the eve of the revolution, than a court magician who adds an air of hocus-pocus to the otherwise unimpressive person of the monarch. Bannon’s mind can readily supply the self-deceptions Trump needs by citing chapter and verse.
How many will have to suffer for Bannon to learn that history is not a personal melodrama cobbled together from old books? It’s possible that Bannon’s usefulness to Trump’s core project of lining his pockets and paying down his debts will be limited. On the other hand, there’s always room for courtiers that flatter and burnish the royal image. Usually ambition is their undoing. Let’s hope it’s not ours, too. History might not have cycles, but one thing does seem perennial: stories of small men trying to make good on grandiose designs, failing to do so, and dragging down the rest of us.