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You are here: Platypus /Book Review: Philip Cunliffe, Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017

Book Review: Philip Cunliffe, Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017

 Gregor Baszak

Platypus Review 101 | November 2017

Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2017.

WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP ANNOUNCED the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord on June 1, 2017, for many liberals it meant that doom was upon us, that the earth was surely soon to be uninhabitable. Yet, if the Paris Accord was the best shot that our civilization had at survival, we were perhaps doomed from the start. NASA scientist James Hansen, at least, one of the earliest voices to raise the alarms about the effects of climate change, had deemed the Accord to be thoroughly inadequate to begin with.[1]

Here’s an alternative way in which the year 2017 might have unfolded:

It is an unseasonably warm November 2017 in Leningrad, although within planned temperature ranges. There is discussion among atmospheric engineers and climate planners whether to make minor adjustments to the cloud systems they are responsible for in order to reflect more sunlight away from the northern hemisphere, or whether to accelerate the construction of orbiting Lagrange space mirrors intended for longer term climate control.[2]

In this scenario, climate change is understood to be an administrative problem, albeit one that is administered by “climate planners” who consciously choose to set earth’s thermometer at a specific temperature range.

In the real world of today, Leningrad is St. Petersburg, Russia is governed by a neoliberal autocrat, and earth’s climate is out of control. The counterfactual history envisioned above was penned by Philip Cunliffe, author of the new book Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017, published by Zero Books. As the title suggests, the book imagines an alternative history of the 20th century, one in which the October Revolution was soon followed by successful revolutions in the capitalist centers of the West, in England, France, Germany, and—the big prize—the United States.

Writing counterfactual history, Cunliffe notes, has so far been the domain of conservative revisionists. In one such infamous counterfactual, for example, Winston Churchill envisioned his dream scenario—the glorious ascendancy of a racialized Anglo-Saxon global empire, had Robert E. Lee only won the battle of Gettysburg (85). Yet, as Cunliffe usefully points out, the notion of “what if” appears to have been inscribed into the very project of Bolshevism itself, a project “self-consciously predicated on counterfactuals” (20; italics in the original). What, in other words, if Lenin’s plan that a revolution in Russia would provide the spark that would light the flames of revolution in Germany and elsewhere had actually succeeded? Lenin didn’t know quite what would happen in the wake of the October Revolution, but it was a gamble worth making. Human freedom required it.

Most of Lenin Lives! is devoted to envisioning in some detail a set of (at times bloody) events throughout the course of the fictional 1920s to 70s in which piece by piece the capitalist nations of the West succumb to organized proletarian pressure and turn socialist. By the “late 1960s,” humanity begins to colonize Mars (127). By the 1970s, we have essentially completed the withering away of the state and the transition to communism (97).

The cover of Lenin Lives

Lenin Lives

Some of these scenarios are enlightening, some amusing (Churchill rotting away in exile in reactionary Canada, for instance), some perhaps beside the point. The book’s true value—and it is immense—lies, however, in recognizing that the dystopian experiences of the 20th century have all been conditioned by the definitive defeat of the world revolution in the early 1920s. Whatever personalities or causes appear to preoccupy the minds of the last remnants of the undead left today, we realize, would have been circumvented had the revolution succeeded. Left sectarian splits based on historical roles played by Trotsky, FDR, Stalin, Mao, or Castro have all been forestalled by the successful revolution. They all would have lived, Cunliffe acknowledges, although they would have led mostly insignificant lives, often not even amounting to footnotes in the alternative history books of Lenin Lives!. Interestingly, the list of relative historical nonentities would have included Lenin himself, seeing how he would have ruled over the least essential, because most backward, country in the entire chain of global revolutions—a scenario that would have been to Lenin’s own liking, of course.[3]

Another important realization, and in many ways the most crucial one, deserves quoting at length. Rather than a doctrine for Third World revolts, Marxism was, according to Cunliffe,

designed to uplift and in so doing transform and improve the most advanced societies, the wealthiest, most politically progressive and technologically sophisticated states, building not only on the civic and political freedoms of liberalism but also the economic achievements of capitalism. (90)

As those generations that followed upon the dystopic turns of the early to mid-20th century, especially the New Left generation and its children, had come to think, the last vestiges of the revolution were rather to be found in what would come to be called “the margins” of society. The belief that the “most oppressed” would also be the most revolutionary, Cunliffe helps us realize, is itself predicated upon the (self-)defeat of the Left throughout the 20th century. It is an expression of despair. Lenin Lives! will be precisely the most provocative where those shaped by contemporary post-colonial sensibilities will wonder how the redemption of human civilization could have possibly rested on the shoulders of developed bourgeois nations. Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine get reinterpreted in Lenin Lives! as the foundation upon which a hemispheric American socialist republic would arise—as the last act of the American Revolution (72-9). Kudos to Cunliffe for upholding the American revolutionary tradition!

There is no New Left in Cunliffe’s counterfactual history; no Stalinism to provide it with its intellectual and political foundations; no anti-colonial revolt upon which the apologists of defeat would place their hopes (the colonial possessions of a socialist United Kingdom immediately accede to remaining within a now planetary socialist federation [83]); no New Left reinterpretation of human history as essentially a war between homogenous race groups[4]; no postmodern degeneration of thought that would cheerfully come to affirm the calamitous history we have inherited; and notably, too, no Frankfurt School, “the ruminations” of which the “world will be spared” (124). What reads as an intentional swipe at Theodor Adorno, who in the counterfactual world would watch the revolutions unfold from the sidelines, mostly devoting his time to writing about music, would naturally have been warmly welcomed by him. The problem with philosophy, Adorno notes in the opening lines of his Negative Dialectics, lies in the fact that it “lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.”[5] A successful socialist world revolution would have entailed the process of overcoming philosophy itself—its becoming “worldly” (and the world “philosophical”), as Karl Marx noted.[6]

In other words, “The continued historic significance of the Russian Revolution is testimony to its ultimate failure” (57). That we have never outstripped the need to study the history of the Left—to study Lenin and Adorno, for example—is the result of the revolution’s defeat, a defeat that continues to haunt us to this day. If we understand the task of socialism as one of initially transforming the most advanced capitalist nations, this transformation would occur on the basis of capitalism itself,[7] as Cunliffe insists, not its one-sided negation through an abstract and primitivist “anti-capitalism.” Yet, it is the latter undialectical attitude toward capitalism that the Left often adopts today. Consequently, this Left is largely made up of what Cunliffe diagnoses as “a morass of sub-anarchistic and ecological groups” (32), desperate as they are to scrape by on the margins of political relevance.

Absent a revolutionary Left, the way the crisis of society presents itself most acutely today is as “the suppression of capitalism itself” (12; italics in the original). “As a social system,” Cunliffe goes on,

propelled by social struggles between economic groups more than it is a system defined by market competition, it was inevitable that a shift in the balance of forces between these groups would impact the social system itself. It is defeat and the shattering of unions that helps explain the sinking of the richest countries in the world into low inflation economies with stagnating real wages. It is defeat that helps explain the fragmented and tiered labour markets of Europe that set groups of workers against each other. It is defeat that helps explain the decline of productivity growth, the failure to harness new technologies for economic growth and progress, and wilting rates of business investment. (12)

It is true, the dynamism of capitalism was indeed predicated on a historic condition in which the “contending classes” (13) were grappling for power. In the picture that Cunliffe draws, 19th century liberalism, at times a noble utopianism in its own right, has been superseded by the near universal accommodation to the crisis-proneness of capitalism in the 20th century.

In this context, Cunliffe appears to imply, though, that the ultimate cause for the revolution’s failure is that it succumbed to waves of “repression” first and foremost (7). That “repression” played an important role is of course beyond doubt; any attempt at revolution will immediately spark a counter-revolution, as Cunliffe reminds us (8). Often on the Left, however, blame is laid solely at the feet of the right—we would live in a better world today, if only it hadn’t been for COINTELPRO, as is frequently said by elderly New Leftists.[8] Cunliffe is eager to point out the pathologies of the Left today, though he spends too little time considering the political crises and debates of Second International social democracy that decisively contributed to the course which history ultimately took. There, too, what happened in the wake of the October Revolution is not all that needs to be said about the matter. Military contingency appears to trump deeply theoretical and political disputes in Cunliffe’s narrative, and what we’re left with is a vision of socialism as essentially a techno-scientific fix for a society held back by a triumphant capitalist class. Yet, why did the revolutions in Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere collapse so quickly (albeit not without a fight)? Why did the October Revolution remain really just a spark and amount to nothing more? Can the roots of the Revolution’s quick suppression not also be located in the fact that the political struggles against revisionism had actually not been won by its eminent combatants, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, leaving the predominance of reformism in the Second International’s member parties essentially intact? A more interesting “what if” to raise in this context might have been the one that asked what would have happened if Rosa Luxemburg had decided to split the Social Democratic Party of Germany long before World War I (perhaps the ground for another counterfactual). Her followers’ patched-up response in the wake of the German Revolution of 1918-19 proved to be too little, too late, as the SPD’s proto-fascistic right-wing had already wrested control over it long before the War.[9]

On the other hand, what’s deeply commendable about the book is its ability to counter philosophical tendencies of the latter half of the 20th century, tendencies that argue for the end of “grand narratives,” by precisely persisting in the need to narrativize the history of modern bourgeois society along those vastly grand scales. How else could we have a sense of where our politics might take us, if we did not permit ourselves the freedom to imagine the social totality (and our subject positions within it) to be transcendeable? Since many on the Left today see society to be made up of a multitude of irreconcilable monads, forever determined by their identities[10], this same Left has ironically wound up proving Margaret Thatcher’s dictum correct that there was no such thing as society. And since there is nothing else that binds us together, political change will at best be a matter of mere contingency, an “event,” rather than the result of the conscious actions of political forces struggling over its direction.

Ultimately, it is the gigantic “what if” of the historical necessity of socialism that continues to task us. Lenin Lives! provocatively forces us to consider the possibility that all of the crises evident today are merely the logical result of a society that has remained incapable of stripping itself off an outdated form—capitalism. When in the year 1850, Marx spoke of the necessity of “permanent revolution,” he tasked his comrades with being as radical as reality itself.[11] Capitalism already appeared as the revolution, one desperate, however, for its political transcendence in the global dictatorship of the proletariat. Whatever dynamism capitalism seems to set into motion, the fact that its own ultimate goal is nothing else but the valorization of capital means that innumerable economic and political crises will keep recurring, to the detriment of the contending classes. To let capitalism fulfill its promise, would mean to allow for its self-overcoming through socialism, a vision very elegantly outlined by Cunliffe. Lenin Lives! is tremendously effective at reminding us what had once been possible—and might again be so.|P

 

[1] Oliver Milman, “James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud,’” The Guardian, December 12, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/12/james-hansen-climate-change-paris-talks-fraud.

[2] Philip Cunliffe, Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017 (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2017), 24. Hereafter referenced parenthetically.

[3] Lenin, after all, recognized that Russia would hold a diminished role if more developed capitalist nations were to go socialist: “It would also be erroneous to lose sight of the fact that, soon after the victory of the proletarian revolution in at least one of the advanced countries, a sharp change will probably come about: Russia will cease to be the model and will once again become a backward country (in the ‘Soviet’ and the socialist sense)” (“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/).

[4] An early example of this can be found in Susan Sontag’s racist assertion that “The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.” Contribution to the symposium “What’s Happening to America,” Partisan Review 34, no. 1 (Winter 1967): 57-8. Italics in the original.

[5] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 2007), 3. See also Chris Cutrone, “Adorno’s Leninism,” Platypus Review 37 (June 2011), available online at https://platypus1917.org/2011/06/01/lenins-liberalism/.

[6] Karl Marx, “To Make the World Philosophical,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 9-11.

[7] In his 1920 pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin emphasizes “the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism” (available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/, italics in the original).

[8] Consider as well that seemingly no leftist account of 20th century America can go without mention of McCarthyism, as if by the 1950s we had still been dealing with a vibrant Communist mass party and its imminent rise to power. Due to Stalin’s catastrophic misleadership of the Communist International, there was hardly any political party for socialism left in the United States by the time of the witch hunts.

[9] See Sebastian Haffner’s extraordinary account in Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-1919 (Chicago: Banner Press, 1986).

[10] It is no exaggeration to stress the fatalistic side of an identity-based politics. As both Jason D. Hill and Thomas Chatterton Williams have been able to show, what’s deeply embedded in the race-first politics of Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, is the pessimistic belief that “white supremacy” is an eternal and unshakeable truth, the only “grand narrative” there is, if you will. In the process, both writers point out, Coates manages to strip any potential political actors seeking to combat injustice of actual agency. See Jason D. Hill, “An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Dream is Real,” Commentary, September 13, 2017, available online at https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/open-letter-ta-nehisi-coates/; and Thomas Chatterton Williams, “Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power,” The New York Times, October 6, 2017, available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/06/opinion/ta-nehisi-coates-whiteness-power.html.

[11] The full quote goes thus:

Although the German workers cannot come to power and achieve the realization of their class interests without passing through a protracted revolutionary development, this time they can at least be certain that the first act of the approaching revolutionary drama will coincide with the direct victory of their own class in France and will thereby be accelerated. But they themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.

“Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League,” available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/communist-league/1850-ad1.htm (emphasis in the original).

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