Deleuze, Guattari, and Lenin: The Uses of Time and History for Revolutionary Politics

By Patrick King

In his recent study of the first volume of Marx’s Capital, Fredric Jameson succinctly identifies the intractable dualism in Marxist theory that ties together questions of time and history to revolutionary political projects. “There can be no doubt,” he writes, “that the old tension in the Marxist political tradition between fatalism and voluntarism — between waiting for the time to be ripe and actively intervening to cause the longed-for crisis of the system — this tension is deeply inscribed in Marx’s own text…where the idea of system seems not only in competition with human action but often to overtake it.”[1] One is caught here between the so-called fatalist waiting for capitalism to destroy itself — and thereby depending on the oft-discussed notion of the tendency to effectuate a revolutionary sequence — and the Leninist urge to strategically intervene in a situation, to no just passively let the objective conditions for revolution to come, but rather actively engage and force the passage from capitalism to socialism. There is then an inextricable link to questions of the time and history: how does one conceptualize history in these instances? Is one wedded to the synchronic temporality of system or structure, or does history proceed by simultaneous coexistences, delays, repetitions, and ruptures? As Lenin very well knew, the revolutions in Russia had to happen twice, so to speak, for the power of the Soviets to take hold. As one prominent commentator has put it, “the fundamental lesson of revolutionary materialism is that revolution must strike twice:” one must destroy both the form and content of the existing regime for something truly new to take place, apropos of the time-lag between, in keeping with the example of the Russian Revolution, the seizure of power from the tsar in February 1917 and the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 that acted upon these contingent circumstances.[2]

This reduction of this repetition to an act both simplifies and complicates the issue at hand: is there an entire philosophy of history proper to be found here? I believe that one must start from the clue that Slavoj Žižek (through Jacques Lacan) gives us in terms of the delay between the form and content of a revolutionary political action. In other words, there must be an historical identification of the gap that exists between the subject or form of enunciation [l’enonciation] and the enunciated content [l’enonce].[3] This is not to provide a crude historicist understanding of political events, but rather to see them within a temporal framework that is open, dynamic, and unfinished, as opposed to one that is self-sufficient and closed.  One could go even so far as to say that this gap reveals “untimeliness itself as an ineluctable condition of historical experience,” to use Rebecca Comay’s recent formulation.[4]

A consequence of this non-linear temporal causality, where coexistence, simultaneity, and succession ultimately coincide and fold back upon each other, is that this redeployment or resignification of actions or historical content can be construed as merely idealist or conceptual, or worse, simply gestural. Contrary to this rendering, I want to uphold the position that this is a properly materialist view of history; rather than viewing history, and with it, other problems of linear causality and temporality, as a finite set of facts or affairs that has definitely passed, one should rather shift to an analysis of conjunctural features, and the re-emergences of certain political, philosophical, or cultural terrains that have seemingly passed. Or put more bluntly, something always escapes history itself. It is within these analytic spaces that the question of revolutionary historico-political repetitions can be posed.

To investigate these claims, that is, the historiographical and political problems of revolution that I want to pose, I will look at a particular case study: the continual references that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari both make to Lenin and the Russian Revolution. For them, Lenin is not so much a proper name as it is a Lenin-effect: they avoid a strictly nominalist view and examine the ways in which Lenin and the historical conditions of Russian in October 1917 has both ideal and material effects on the present, and vice versa. For Deleuze and Guattari, history must never be seen as a succession of moments, an accumulation of time and events. A revolutionary history, considers them both at one; “time is never simultaneity and succession alone.”[5] Events can be extended or said, in a certain sense, beyond their normal conditions. Their examination of Lenin, both in Guattari’s solo work Molecular Revolution and the jointly authored A Thousand Plateaus examines this peculiar causality, or what could be called a quasi-causality. It is a history that follows what Deleuze calls Foucault’s ‘greatest principle’: “everything is always said in each epoch.”[6] In this way, one is able to explode the distinction between synchrony and diachrony noted above, as history is nothing but delays, time-lags and ruptures, which succeed each other and yet remain coexistent. For Deleuze and Guattari, the ‘event’ of Lenin is a prime example of these transversal cuts in time.

Guattari on Lenin

Guattari begins his 1971 essay, “The Leninist Breakthrough” (the word used in French is actually coupure, which perhaps could be better translated as ‘cut’ or ‘rupture’) with the thesis that “there are possibilities of interruption in historical causality.”[7] He continues by re-examining the task of historical materialism, such that in looking at a case such as Lenin’s decision to immediately seize power (as enumerated in the April theses) and thus forces the subsequent Bolshevik revolt, “the real question is in what fashion we should best look back at such moments in history, to what point it is necessary to analyze all the circumstances that affected them.”[8] To do so, he thinks a more nuanced and indeed non-linear approach is needed than just clinging to a “purely historical causality.” He describes it as an analysis that would cross the traditional boundaries and try to work out the links connecting the different determinisms-economic, demographic, sociological, the unconscious, etc. One would then no longer have to choose one signifying plane over another — either the human factor or the economic, for instance — but could follow in detail the winding trail of the signifier, its crossroads, dead ends, ramifications repetitions, backward turns.[9]

It should be noted that, in a manner akin to Althusser’s concept of overdetermination, Guattari refuses to attribute a priority to one determinate level of history over others; the linguistic, the economic, the social, and the political all coexist and have equal connections and influence on the historical process. Put another way, historical conditions are both material and incorporeal, as they both equally acquire and produce certain significations, certain meanings. However, for Guattari, the Leninist signifying cut comes primarily at the subjective level, and at this point in his work (before Deleuze), this means that the subject is determined structurally, or what amounts to the same thing here, through the workings of language. Following Lacan, he sees the Leninist moment, or the temporal point at which Lenin urged the proletariat and the masses to intervene and take hold of a volatile situation (April Theses), as “history considered at the level of subjectivity, in the cut of enunciation.”[10] While in his later work with Deleuze the language of the ‘signifier’ will be excised in favor of a more materialist discussion of language and its pragmatic implications, this importance of subjectivity, or the subjective factor in revolutionary situations, will remain intact. Revolution, no matter its material qualifications or conditions, is always incomplete or unfinished without an incorporeal transformation, or a change in the coordinates of possibility within a situation.

At this point, however, a problem arises: how is one to understand this emphasis on the subject? Is Guattari merely posing a sort of voluntarism or political will? For Guattari, the subject of history does not have this connotation, as it should be understood in terms of the shift previously described, from the subject of enunciation (sujet de l’enounciation) but the subject of the statement, the enunciated content (sujet des enonces). The effects of the Russian revolution should be thus sought at the level of meaning, in that the constellation of significations completely changed from one point to the other, after the ‘rupture’. As he describes: That’s what history is — true history. Something has happened. Anyone who came to Russia in 1916 and returned in 1918 would see that the people were not where they had been. That could be read in the signified. Journalists would write, for instance, that ‘one no loner sees anyone at the race courses,’ or ‘the Winter Palace looks quite different.’ But that was not the important thing: what had totally changed was the meaning of all the significations — something that happened with the signifier.[11] For Guattari, at this stage when he was still indebted to a certain Lacanian theoretical viewpoint, ‘traditional’ history would simply repeat the structure of the signified as it is, in that it is “always the same thing — repetition, death, tedium,” which would result in a sort of anti-history, of the kind that would simply name off certain dates, names, and places.[12] The interruption of this sort of homogenous history is precisely where he locates the ‘cut’. But at this stage, in closely identifying with Lacan, Guattari this interruption primarily in terms of the signifier, as an ahistorical operator within history. The signifier reorders the field of possibility or historical visibility: “only by being incessantly cut across at the level of the signifier can it [the signifier] be radically remolded.”[13] This signifier, what Guattari deems the “nonsensical, ahistorical raw material constitutive of historical significations,” is what allowed Lenin and the Bolsheviks to initiate or effectuate the rupture, to introduce a “cry for radical reorientation.”[14] Historical reality here, is thus symbolized in a particular way. Guattari’s analysis of Lenin here is thus still at the level of a sort of ideological analysis, in that, as Žižek has previously described, “any unity of a given ‘experience of meaning’…is supported some ‘pure’, meaningless ‘signifier without the signified.’”[15] Lenin’s cut, his urge in the Theses to seize power as soon as possible, thus remains within a structural linguistic horizon. In his later work, Guattari will reverse this position: Stalinism will be equated with the ‘redundancy of the signifier’, while Lenin’s break will be re-formed in terms of the mapping of the “diagrammatic a-signifying coordinates.”[16] It is from this duality of grammatical politics, so to speak, that Deleuze and Guattari’s engagement with Lenin in A Thousand Plateaus will take place. So how does this reversal occur?

The change comes from a shift from an emphasis on the signifier to a more materialist semiotics. Guattari is not so much concerned with the relation of signs with other signs, but of the relation of the sign to the referent, to where material processes take place. For Guattari, the signifier becomes coextensive with capitalism itself, in the way commodity fetishism obviates by equivalence and the ability for exchange-value to represent, that is, elide, the sensuous human labor put into its manufacture. As Janell Watson notes, “signification precludes revolution” as in its relation to the workings of capitalist exchange: Guattari is thus forced to “no longer locat[e] revolution in the signifier-signified-subject splitting, but in an asignifying semiotic cut within the real.”[17] The ability for language to operate within, or immanent to the real — here strictly meant in the sense of reality itself — will become for Guattari and Deleuze the key to any sort of revolutionary thinking of history.

The “Postulates of Linguistics” chapter in A Thousand Plateaus contains Deleuze and Guattari’ analysis of Lenin, and further this shift to a more materialist, or what they deem machinic, account of language and historical processes. Language, before being communicative or informational, is here seen as directly social or political. The base unit of language is thus the “order-word” [mot d’ordre], a performative that is backed by social compulsion. A speech-act, then, is always immediately collective, having both virtual and actual effects: any enunciation is collective. One could say, as Deleuze notes in reference to Husserl, that sense or meaning is always an act, or intentional. Meaning enacts an incorporeal transformation among bodies, as an incorporeal event among material things.[18] Any enunciation that ties different constellation of meanings together, when intentional acts confer with physical states of affairs, can be ascribed a certain historical temporality as an event. As the authors state in a key passage:

The incorporeal transformation is recognized by its instantaneity, by its immediacy, by the simultaneity of the enunciation that expresses it and the effect it produces; this is why the order-word is strictly dated, hour, minute, and second, and take hold the moment they are dated.[19]

One should note, following Jay Lampert, that this act of enunciation does not just imply suddenness; it actually contracts or condenses previous meanings of statements attributed to bodies; “it remakes history with a new focal point.”[20] There is a virtual potential to the pronouncements of Lenin, the speech-acts or slogans that he declares, such as “All Power to the Soviets”: they constitute a diagrammatic break, an incorporeal transformation that breaks with the concrete assemblage of material things (what Deleuze and Guattari call the ‘strata’), as “a type of statement can be evaluated only as a function of its pragmatic implications…in relation to the implicit presuppositions, immanent acts, or incorporeal transformations it expresses and which introduce new configurations of bodies.”[21]

Through this performative act of enunciation, Lenin thus re-focuses history around a new point, or said otherwise, he initiates a Lenin-effect in the future and past simultaneously. The becoming of this effect can be delayed, even infinitely, but its reverberations can repeat across time itself. The name and date of Lenin-1917 is thus ‘mapped’ or ‘diagrammed’ into history (brought into historical existence) and can change both the meaning and succession of the events that precede and connect with it, but also acts as a new point contracted in the past for the future. I will return to this point shortly.

One should notice the similarity here to Guattari’s previous analysis of the Leninist ‘cut’, but also the differences: Deleuze and Guattari are describing this incorporeal transformation in a different existential modality. Expressions and physical events interact causally both at the level of form and matter; Guattari’s simple dichotomy (from de Saussure and Lacan) between signifier and signified is substituted for a fourfold schema of the substance/form distinctions within both expression and content. In other words, the two ‘planes’ of content and expression are then organized or subdivided into the binaries of substance and form, i.e., there is a form and substance of content and a form and substance of expression.[22] The plane of expression of a historical event would thus include its form (the ‘meaning’ of the event) and substance (i.e., Lenin’s voice) as well as a plane of content that has its own form (its social implications or functions) and substance (physical bodies). In other words, the name and date of Lenin-1917 (The April Theses, All-Power to the Soviets, its expressions) has as its other pole the material and social substances and forms of the material social strata, the material conditions that equally drove the Russian revolution. Base and superstructure, that traditional binary opposition of Marxist theory, are combined into one assemblage.

The threads of the argument need to be brought back together: how can one simply ‘date’ a sort of speech act? If one can ‘become’ Lenin at any point in history, how can dates remain in chronological order? How can this incorporeal date-point be brought back into history definitively? One can look to Deleuze’s discussion of the ‘diagram’ in his book on Foucault, which is here related to the oft-used notion of the ‘abstract machine’ in A Thousand Plateaus. In Foucault, Deleuze presents the interchangeability and precise nature of the terms:

The diagram or abstract machine is the map of relations between forces, a map of destiny, or intensity, which proceeds by primary non-localizable relations and at every moment passes through every other point, ‘or rather in every relation from one point to another’… the diagram acts as a non-unifying immanent cause that is coextensive with the whole social field: the abstract machine is like the cause of the concrete assemblages that execute its relations; and these relations take place ‘not above’ but within the very tissue of the assemblages they produce.[23]

One can say that this diagram or abstract machine is like the ‘virtual energy’ that potentiates any event. There is a “Lenin abstract-machine” connected to the materiality of the Bolshevik “collective assemblage of enunciation.”[24] But it is not as if there are two kinds of history: one that refers back to the aforementioned “Lenin-effect,” as the ability for the Lenin-abstract machine to flow through other bodies in history, or to be repeated; the other that holds to a principle of sufficient historical causality, which searches for historical conditions of events ad infinitum. Deleuze is quite clear in his insistence that the abstract-machine or diagram is an “immanent cause” and that there is “a correlation or mutual presupposition…between abstract machine and concrete assemblages.”[25] And furthermore, Deleuze and Guattari reiterate that the abstract machine is historically and temporally located: “it is the names and dates that refer to the singularities of the machines, and to what they effectuate.”[26] There must be another way of grasping this problem.

An answer can be found in the way in which different diagrams or abstract machines interact with each other. That is to say, the difference between different dates, or the difference between Lenin initiating an incorporeal transformation in 1917 and an Occupy Wall Street protester repeating the Lenin-effect today is when the two events are put into contact with each other. The immanent delay, or the time-lag between the two, is what puts the “date into history.” In Foucault, Deleuze mentions that diagrams or abstract-machines, though seemingly some type of non-chronological, a priori model, can be understood through their “succession,” and “the way in which they become linked up.”[27] Diagrams can communicate with each other, so that the 1917 Revolution converges with the 1789 Revolution, and then to 1949 and then to 1968… and so on in both directions at once. Each remapping of history is connected to another, but in succession: succession and simultaneity must be seen as coextensive to history itself. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of Lenin in A Thousand Plateaus brings together all these levels at once, when speaking of the “Lenin abstract machine and the Bolshevik collective assemblage”: Lenin at once announced remaking of history around his revolutionary slogans, around his ‘cut’ within the given conjuncture (July 4 as the day when the Soviets ceased being the source of power and the Bolshevik party took its place), yet this announcement also occurred in certain material conditions (the worsening economic and social conditions since the beginning of the Great War), which the Bolsheviks acted upon causally. On a third level, 1917 becomes the successor of other diagrams or abstract machines through its temporal distance from others revolutionary events.

One can see here that Deleuze and Guattari both would agree with, but also drastically expand upon, Žižek’s assertion above that ‘the revolution must strike twice’: on the one hand, there needs to be material conditions coupled with incorporeal transformations: the act of naming a specific conjuncture is a revolutionary act, it is a “source of metamorphosis.”[28] On the other hand, it must also connect to other diagrams of which it is both the successor and precursor. To paraphrase the famous phrase of Deleuze’s from Difference and Repetition, where he rewrites Freud’s definition of backwards-causality (Nachtraglichkeit): “There is no room to ask how the [historical] event acts only by delay. It is this delay, but this delay itself is the pure form of time which makes the before and the after co-exist.”[29] In this sense, Deleuze and Guattari opt for a third option for revolution, and the possibility for grasping history itself as revolutionary, against the fatalist waiting for capitalism to destroy itself and the hurried forcing of the objective situation. Would it be possible to shift the way this question is posed, and show that revolution is folded into the circulation of historical events themselves? This is exactly the point at which they reference the Leninist cut into history in Anti-Oedipus, as a schizophrenic moment which forces a rewriting of history on a level with the real, and produces this strangely polyvocal moment when everything is possible.”[30] To repeat the past in a revolutionary way is to know that time moves forwards, and that the past itself is virtual material. To repeat Lenin is thus to rewrite history, in a way, but if and only if one recognizes the simultaneous and successive aspect of such a historical repetition.


In an unfortunately neglected article, Warren Montag asserts the materialist dimension of a rethinking between forms of thought and history. In analyzing the relationship between Spinoza and Althusser, Montag refuses to use the term ‘influence’ as a descriptive marker: rather, he describes that what prompted Althusser’s anachronistic return to Spinoza was the fact that “something of Spinoza’s theoretical struggle, modified by the relationship of theoretical forces that characterized the later half of the seventeenth century, repeated itself in the theoretical conjunctures of 1960s France.”[31] One can replace the word theoretical here with historical, and produce a similar account of Deleuze and Guattari’s engagement with Lenin and the notion of revolutionary repetition: it is not an interpretive account, but of an intervention in the relationship of forces that flowed through Lenin’s conjuncture. Such repetitions, as Deleuze and Guattari describe, are an analysis or taking-hold of the ‘actuality’ of a revolutionary gesture, form of thought, or act in the present moment, the present conjuncture, a recognition of both the distance between the two times, and yet their mutual presupposition (i.e., the re-deployment of certain past themes or effects). History, for Deleuze and Guattari, never closes upon itself. While it may appear to be circular, the delay between historical events and their diagrammatic functioning insures the difference between their moments and conjunctures. The multiple appearances of Lenin and his unique historical situation — the first successful proletarian revolution in world-history until the ‘obscure disaster’ of its failure — is precisely due to the necessity for the re-actualization of this problematic today. In other words, how is it possible to make a revolution?

[1] Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, (London: Verso, 2011), 87.

[2] Slavoj Žižek, “Introduction: Between the Two Revolutions,” in Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917, ed. Slavoj Žižek, (London: Verso, 2002), 7.

[3] See Jacques Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).

[4] Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 7.

[5]5 Jay Lampert, Deleuze and Guattari’s Philosophy of History, (London: Contiuum, 2006), 93.

[6] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, (Paris: Editions Minuit, 1986).

[7] Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, trans. Rosemary Sheed, (New York: Penguin, 1984), 184.

[8] Ibid., 185.

[9] Ibid., 186.

[10] Ibid., 179.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 176.

[14] Ibid., 179.

[15] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (London: Verso, 1989), 108.

[16] Felix Guattari, L’inconscient machinique: Essais de schizo-analyse, (Fonetenay-sous-Bois: Recherches, 1979).

[17] Janell Watson, Guattari’s Diagrammatic Thought, (London: Continuum, 2008), 152.

[18] See Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 23. One should note here the close link between this Spinozist argument and Louis Althusser’s argument for the ‘material existence’ of ideology, whereby matter exists in ‘different modalities.’ See Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy, trans. Ben Brewster, (London: New Left Books, 1971).

[19] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 81, translation modified.

[20] Lampert, 73.

[21] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 83.

[22] The consequences of this fourfold schema, borrowed from Hjelmslev’s linguistics, are illustrated thoroughly in Fredric Jameson, “Marxism and Dualism,” in A Deleuzian Century?, ed. Ian Buchanan, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 13-36.

[23] Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Sean Hand, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 37.

[24] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 100.

[25] Deleuze, Foucault, 37.

[26] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 511.

[27] Deleuze, Foucault, 44.

[28] Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Deleuze and Language, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 172.

[29] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 124.

[30] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 377-378.

[31] Warren Montag, “Spinoza and Althusser Against Hermeneutics: Interpretation or Intervention?” in The Althusserian Legacy, ed. E. Anne Kaplan and Michael Sprinkler, (London: Verso, 1993), 52-53.