Lenin Lives! A Disorders Forum: Introduction

This post kicks off a short forum on Philip Cunliffe’s book, Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017 (Zero Books, 2017). After an introduction from Philip, we have reactions from Disorderite Jamie Allinson and guest author Alex Sutton, followed by a response from the author. You can see all the posts here.

Philip Cunliffe is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, and editor-in-chief of the journal International Peacekeeping.  He is the author of Legions of Peace: UN Peacekeepers from the Global South (Hurst, 2013) and is currently working on a new book entitled The Twenty Years’ Crisis in the Twenty First Century.


Over a hundred years after the October Revolution in Russia, and a hundred years after the November Revolution in Germany – the failure of which would condemn Russian socialism to isolation and bloody involution – both revolutions are remarkably absent from public debate. While this absence became itself a matter of public debate, it was just as remarkable and much less justifiable that the field of IR/international studies largely let the centenaries of the Russian and German Revolutions pass with such little note.

Of course, historically speaking, in the discipline of IR the Russian Revolution was largely dealt with the through the prism of the Cold War. The October Revolution was the event that supposedly set in motion an ideologically-charged, geopolitical confrontation and nuclear stalemate that itself is now long since in the past. The German Revolution tends to be even more overlooked in IR, even though its consequences were no less momentous: Paul Mason reminds us that it was the German revolutionaries, not the diplomats at Versailles, who brought the Great War to an end. Yet the German Revolution was also indissolubly linked to the Russian Revolution – for it was the Bolsheviks’ withdrawal of Russia from the war that removed the rationale for the German war effort. Given that the German ruling class had won the labour movement to the war effort with the justification of countering a Tsarist invasion of Germany, the withdrawal of Russia from the war kicked away the justification for class compromise and civil peace – the infamous Burgfrieden – in Germany.

Kenneth Waltz with Uncle Joe

At the same time, both the Russian and German revolutions were failed revolutions, and it is their cumulative failures that were most consequential for international history. The Cold War stemmed from the failure of the Russian Revolution to spread, resolving itself into a strategy of rapid industrialisation, state-building and armed confrontation with its geopolitical rivals. The failure of the German Revolution led to the Paris peace treaties, the Twenty Years’ Crisis of IR lore, and the Nazis resolving the contradictions of the Weimar Republic. Being more distant in time from both the revolutions and the Cold War we should by rights have less reason to ignore them, given that we should be free from the ideological strictures of the Cold War.

The neorealism of the Cold War era famously insulated international politics from the challenge posed by revolution, claiming that the structure of power political competition at the international level was immune to even the most far-reaching and radical transformations in domestic politics. After all, the Soviet Union ended up pursuing balancing strategies, arms races and territorial aggrandisement just as much as any other state, despite the grand claims of the revolution. Yet neorealism offers us no alibis, given that its influence in the academy has largely dissipated, increasingly unpopular even among realists themselves. What is more, the contemporary IR academy boasts far more radical and critical approaches to international politics than ever – and certainly far more than in the heyday of the Cold War and neorealism. Yet perversely we seem to be just as inured to and uninterested in the great European revolutions of the twentieth century as ever. What is worse, the intellectual firewalls are less obvious. Neorealism predicated its claims on a strict conceptual distinction between the anarchic realm of international politics and the hierarchic realm of domestic politics. Few in the discipline would uncritically accept this conceptual distinction today. In the absence of the formal specification of different political domains, how might we identify the barriers that keep Europe’s revolutionary history hidden from our view?

Critical approaches concerned with international history have addressed themselves to the Peace of Westphalia and the so-called ‘great divergence’. Even Leon Trotsky has enjoyed something of a rehabilitation via Justin Rosenberg’s attempt to extrapolate a new theory of international order from Trotsky’s ideas about combined and uneven development. Lenin and the Russian Revolution on the other hand remain absent in contemporary IR. Part of the reason for this is the form that critical new approaches have taken. After all, of the Marxists it is Antonio Gramsci, not Vladimir Lenin, whose intellectual influence is felt most widely in the IR academy. This is despite the fact that Lenin’s writings were much more directly concerned and more consequential for both political economy and international politics – not only his justly renowned Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism but also his many writings about war and The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Perhaps Gramsci’s appeal over that of Lenin rests on the fact that Gramsci’s theories allowed his intellectual followers to wax lyrical about the infinitely subtle cultural variants and malleable forms of hegemony in explaining away the absence of revolution, as opposed to the more taxing effort of criticising the concrete role of the left in politics, and examining data on capital export and industrial consolidation, as Lenin was wont to do. No doubt, the fact that Gramsci was a martyr to fascism also means that confronting his intellectual legacy does not require his followers to consider the hard questions of wielding political power – questions that are unavoidable with Lenin. Even among those scholars influenced by decolonial approaches, Lenin, this part-Jewish, part-Chuvash, part-Scandinavian grandson of serfs from the fringes of European Russia, who did more than any other individual in history to bring the European colonial empires to an end, is overlooked in favour of the likes of Samir Amin, defender of the Khmer Rouge.

Among scholars and students of international studies the failure to deal with Lenin and the fate of the intertwined Russo-German revolutions reflects the fact that we are so deeply buried in the consequences of revolutionary failure that it is almost impossible to dig out of the intellectual rubble. The international order as such, especially its post-colonial form, is a symptom of the failure of the Russian Revolution. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Russian Revolution embodied an effort aiming at abolishing the state as such, through the revolutionary transformation of society – and with the abolition of the state, inter-state politics comes to an end, too. Lenin’s politics were not aimed merely at overthrowing the empires but at establishing a new and transitional political form of state. Martin Wight was fond of quoting Trotsky’s notorious anti-diplomatic declaration that his approach to foreign policy in the new revolutionary state would be to issue ‘a few revolutionary proclamations then close shop’. For Wight, this exemplified the revolutionist attitude to international society. By extension, the survival and expansion of international society testifies to the historic defeat of the Russian Revolution.

That the failure of the Russian Revolution led to the creation of a monstrous new Leviathan is well known and obvious, the bitter, paradoxical outcome of Lenin’s effort to build a transitional state form as a prelude to its withering away. That the failure of the Russian Revolution helped to relegitimate the state as such, and through it international society, is less appreciated. This too was a defeat for Lenin’s vision of the Russian Revolution. Although he was unstinting in his anti-imperialism and his support for the principle of self-determination, for Lenin the significance of self-rule in the periphery could only ever be vindicated by proletarian emancipation in the core. The post-1945 United Nations order was predicated on the explicit Soviet retreat from world revolution with the dissolution of the Communist International in 1943. The global spread of the nation-state was only possible after ‘socialism in one country’ was built on the ruins of Lenin’s policy of proletarian internationalism. Kenneth Waltz thought the international structure of the states system immune to revolutionary shocks from within states, missing the fact that the states-system was strengthened through the absorption of that shock. However, that Lenin and the Russian Revolution remain obscure even to critical scholars suggests that it is not only neo-realists who have vested themselves in the states system.

Lenin Lives!

To better appreciate the significance of the failure of the Russian Revolution and the consequences of that failure, it is necessary not only to consider but also elaborate what the success of the Russian Revolution might have looked like, had the revolution spread through Germany in November 1918 to the rest of Europe, and through it the world. This is what I try to do in Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017. Partly inspired by Ned Lebow’s efforts to integrate counter-factual thinking into social science, I try to show what a world liberated from international relations and international society would look like. This is portrayed as the globalisation of a revolutionary federalism, integrating nations into geographically larger units with smaller central states, many of their functions devolved to civil society, thereby delivering on the promise of globalisation as opposed to our much inferior, actually existing and state-heavy globalisation of the early twenty first century.

‘1991’, by G. Zykov

Lenin Lives! begins with our world, explaining how it is the result of historic defeats – defeats that have resulted in the reconstitution of society. Yet this claim in turn, can only be understood from the imagined vantage point of a radically improved, better world. The remainder of the book sets out to do that. The second chapter begins in a parallel 2017 of this radically improved world, in which space colonisation is far advanced, states have dissolved away and even historic commemoration of the centenary of the Russian Revolution is a low-key, redundant affair. The book then proceeds by depicting this alternative timeline, spliced with comparisons from the history of the actually existing twentieth century.

The third chapter begins with the end of the Great War in 1924, which leaves a divided Germany. In the West, there is a nationalist, militaristic German Democratic Republic run by warlords and black market robber barons, established by the League of Nations in the Rhineland. To the east, there is a revolutionary Germany, the westernmost edge of a great Eurasian federation in which landlords and aristocrats have been chased away, bankers overthrown, nationalist elites dispersed, with the great German, Austrian and Czech industrial combines under worker ownership and control. From here, the narrative works through the fall of the remaining capitalist states in Britain, France, Japan, China, and most importantly, the USA. The second civil war of the mid-1920s in the US finally redeems the hopes of the first, and through it, the great promise of the American Revolution itself. The USA will become the core of a grand, pan-American federation. The promises of Afrofuturism are realised, as the African equator becomes the world’s most conveniently located site for rocket launches and the advance into space.

While the third chapter is based on imagining the high politics and historic dramas of such a world, the fourth chapter is based on a more personal note, imagining how ordinary life might have unfolded in this radically improved twentieth century – including with that of my own family. The personal lives of political leaders – Gandhi, Chiang Kai-shek, Stalin, Hitler, Roosevelt – are all reimagined in a different vein. The continued unfurling of revolutionary art, never stymied by Stalinism or fascism, unfolds across the twentieth century – Paris is never displaced by New York, and cinema retains its home in Berlin and London as opposed to decamping to California. As Europe’s great scientists are never chased away by fascism, the great wonders of nuclear science are all uncovered in Europe itself, and bent to peaceful purposes. In a radically better world of course, the development of the rest of the world outside of Europe cannot be held back, and Sino-Russian industrialisation can occur without the depredations of autarky, famine and multiple wars.

With great social and political problems resolved, I show that many of the greatest philosophers of our era are left at a loose end, never realising that their metier belongs to a different era altogether. Reworking the history of the twentieth century through revolutionary success in Germany means that the central questions of international politics in the twentieth century – fascism, Cold War, decolonisation / Third World revolution, nationalism, Stalinism, development – are rendered redundant. It is thus a world in which IR academics would be bereft of jobs.


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