This is the second part of a Disorders forum on Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution, 1917-2007 (Zero Books, 2017). For the rest of the forum, click here.
How far might Marxism be considered a genre of science – or rather ‘speculative’ – fiction? Speculative fiction, to borrow Judith Merril’s concise definition, refers to that form of writing ‘which makes use of the traditional “scientific method” (observation, hypothesis, experiment) to examine some postulated approximation of reality, by introducing a given set of changes – imaginary or inventive – into the common background of “known facts.”’ Or, to put it another way, people make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing: what might happen if the circumstances, or the choices, were different? For all those who cleave to the idea of October 1917 as the highest point yet reached of human emancipation, and not the genesis of the grey tyrannies that took the Russian revolution as their founding myth, the mode of speculative fiction is indispensable. The main reason for studying the degeneration of the Russian revolution is to imagine how it could have been different. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the best centennial treatment of the Revolution has come not from a historian or political scientist but a Speculative Fiction author: China Miéville’s magisterial October. Shorter in length, and necessarily narrower in scope, Philip Cunliffe’s Lenin Lives: Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017 is nonetheless to be commended for tackling the speculative mode dead on.
Seizing counterfactual history back from the blimpish fantasies of the right, Cunliffe draws out the inherent speculative premise of any anti-Stalinist Left: the bad timeline hypothesis. As in Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound of Thunder’, and Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future II, we live in the bad timeline of modernity. At some point in the past things went badly wrong, skewing us into a world in which words such as ‘class’, ‘revolution’ or ‘justice’ have lost all meaning ‘ [p.6], ‘progress’ has become a taboo, and even capitalists have forgotten how to do their job of accumulation [p.12]. The point of divergence between our post-dystopian timeline and the world that should have been born, Cunliffe identifies as the failure of the Russian revolution in its early years to spread beyond its beyonds to the Western European core of the capitalist system.
Such an origin places Cunliffe’s parallel universe firmly within the tradition of the Soviet Left Opposition and its international epigones. The retreat of the Revolution from internationalism, and the attempt to build ‘Socialism in One Country’ has long been taken as the source of the Soviet Thermidor – whether that phenomenon is defined as a degenerated worker’s state, some form of state capitalism, or a ‘new class’ of bureaucratic collectivists. Indeed, Cunliffe is on strong ground here. The inevitable consequence of this retreat was that ‘socialism’ came to mean not the transcendence of the achievements of capitalism in its most prosperous and technologically developed heartlands, but a method of defence and emulation in its peripheries. The state socialisms of the world that actually existed in the wake of the Soviet Thermidor Cunliffe describes, aptly quoting the Italian Marxist Amadeo Bordiga, as ‘bourgeois revolutions with red flags.’ Instead of a programme of cosmopolitan freedom, Marxism became the name of an ideology of national autarky.
How, in Cunliffe’s alternative history, does the revolution spread West and what are its consequences? The imagined narrative turns, rightly, around the actual historical event of the German revolution of 1918-19 and the conflagration of class war that accompanied it throughout Europe east of the Rhine. If the tableau of real events is accompanied by a strong dose of revolutionary wish-fulfilment, it is all the more enjoyable for it.
In this good timeline of modernity, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknicht elude their assassins, leading the German revolution of 1919 and founding the Deutsche Sozialistiche Raterepubliken, the ‘German Socialist Council Republics’, the greatest state never born. The allied powers form a ’League of Nations’ in an ineffectual attempt to stanch the revolutionary tide, propping up a short-lived ‘German Democratic Republic’ on the Rhine. Italy’s fascist interlude lasts under five years: by 1925 the USA has been liberated from capital by the multi-racial ’Sherman Brigades’, dishing out revolutionary justice to plutocrat and White supremacist alike. 1926 marks not the defeat of the British General Strike but the opening of the victorious British revolution, which transforms the Empire into the ‘federation of free nations’ called for by Subhas Chandra Bose [p.83].
China’s worker communists are not massacred in Shanghai but rather take power, simultaneously dealing the deathblow to colonial White supremacy and unifying the Eurasian continent into a single, throbbing socialist heartland. For the first time in human history, the tide of growth rises high, and lifts every boat.
The Great War remains just that, for there was never a second. Not only the human talents stolen by the Holocaust, the Great Purge, the Cultural Revolution, the wars of colonial reaction but the millions lost to the quotidian hunger and squalor of capitalism, are still with us. They build a world where space travel is already a reality, powered by the techno-industrial might of a united socialist Africa.
By 2017, communist geo-engineers are debating the optimal global temperature to maintain – for comfort, rather than necessity. Without intrusive competing states and corporations, there is nothing to inhibit their work. A few revellers in Leningrad celebrate the centenary, making use of the golden pissoirs, imagined by the historical Lenin, on the way. Most are untroubled by the anniversary of the one revolution that sparked off other more significant events, and have little use for theories about class society, now a vanished and ingnominious past. They have far more important things to do.
All this really is the most rollicking fun, and an excellent way to spend an afternoon. Particularly appealing is the inversion of traditional British invasion fantasies: Cunliffe identifies wholeheartedly with the Proletarian Blitzkrieg launched westward by Soviet Germany. Indeed the image of a Red Vienna in arms, its Marxist macherim and worker militias sweeping the continent of reactionary trash, is quite delicious to contemplate.
Yet, as HP Lovecraft noted, no speculative fiction can be truly effective ‘unless it is devised with all the care and versimillitude of an actual hoax.’ It is here that Lenin Lives falls somewhat short. Only a churl would deny the pleasure of the narrative, but it all seems to come rather easily: although perhaps Cunliffe, with his frank adoption of the speculative mode, merely exposes a more general reliance on this sort of thinking. Each Western revolution follows the Russian model, more or less, and the dominoes fall in order. Is the fact that this did not actually occur only down to leadership or luck? Gramsci, dismissed with indecent and unwinning haste as ‘Stalin’s Italian henchman’, had a thing or two to say about this problem, as have others. Their answers may be wrong, but the question will persist.
One wonders likewise if the revolutionary coalitions necessary first to overcome capitalism and then to build a world both prosperous and egalitarian, would be quite so easily forged. Communism having abolished ‘society’, Cunliffe’s 2017 world would presumably be spared social media and the preening solipsism it incubates in every argument. Nonetheless, would the obstinate sexual hierarchy and oppression revealed under much of the ‘MeToo’ hashtag have disappeared so readily in the world of a successful Russian revolution?
Cunliffe rightly identifies the ‘national question’, and Lenin’s intransigent defence of the ‘right to self-determination’ against imperial metropoles as one likely cleavage between the victorious revolutionaries of his alternate timeline. The actually existing historical record of, for example the 2nd Comintern congress and the spirit of the Baku ‘Congress of the Peoples of the East’ permits us to believe that in our alternate timeline the struggle against national and racial chauvinism would not have been downgraded. Yet this was also a time in which rank and file communists- such as in the infamous slogan of strikers at the Witwatersrand mines, ‘workers of the world unite for a White South Africa’, or in the Bolshevik organisations themselves in Central Asia – were not entirely free of such deviations. A revolution in the West would have brought in far wider layers, perhaps still tainted with the colonial reformism expressed by Eduard Bernstein: colonialism was the ‘spread, or rather the assertion, of the higher culture’ of Europeans.’ Bernstein and his epigones would of course have been on the other side of Cunliffe’s European civil war, but would their global legacy have been so easily overcome?
There is a stronger objection, if perhaps an unfair one to direct at such a reverie. Cunliffe’s premise is that the defeat of communism was the defeat of humanity, and that this unchosen circumstance leaves us with no more history to make. Anyone who pretends otherwise gets the shortest of shrift: Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are ‘frumpy social democrats’; Syriza and Podemos, ‘shambolic Left populists’; proponents of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’, ‘work-shy hipsters’. Whatever the truth of these sobriquets, they seem an odd tribute to a revolutionary who insisted that ‘whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands’. The urgency of this task is only sharpened by the convergence of scientific projections of the future of the planet with dystopian speculative fiction. Here Cunliffe misses an opportunity, for a dose of the Bolshevik spirit – rather than the passive ‘resilience’ preached by governments and their opponents alike – is necessary. The communism to come may be automated, but it will not be luxurious. We shall have need of internationalist revolutionaries who can move whole populations to the habitable upper latitudes, atom-powered carbon scrubbers furiously working to keep the atmosphere breathable, work-klaxons sounding in the long and fetid polar night. We are, Cunliffe writes, already on the other side of ‘the catastrophic nadir of human history.’ Just you wait. We don’t know what’s coming to us.
 This, of course, was the congress at which Lenin’s ‘Theses on the National Question’ was sensibly amended by MN Roy to promote communist alliance with ‘revolutionary’ rather than merely ‘bourgeois-democratic’ national movements.