Lenin Lives! A Disorders Forum: Brave Old World

This is part three in a forum on Philip Cunliffe’s Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution, 1917-2017 (Zero Books, 2017). For the rest of the forum, click here.

Alex Sutton is a Lecturer in Political Economy at Oxford Brookes University. He has previously worked at the Universities of Warwick, St Andrews, Kingston and Chichester. His research focuses on International Political Economy and British imperial history, considering how imperial policy derives from the fractious nature of capitalist social relations.



Philip Cunliffe’s Lenin Lives! is a fascinating, and diverting, journey into a counter-factual world of utopian wish-fulfilment. Here, Cunliffe draws on counter-factual history as a ‘critical tool for political action’ (35) to develop an alternative story of human development: what if the socialist revolutions of the early twentieth century had lived up to their promise?

The book makes a disclaimer early on that its goal is to be ‘indicative, demonstrative, and provocative’ (22), as such any criticisms – I hope – are to be taken with a pinch of salt. My fear, however, is that Lenin Lives! has fallen into a trap in fetishizing a past possibility for a future that could not happen. Indeed, Cunliffe describes the book as a ‘future of the past rather than a future of ours’ (34) and distinguishes between the ‘historical world’ – our timeline – and the ‘better world’ that might have been. Lenin Lives! is, in this sense, far too enamoured with saving the promise of the Soviet Union that it does not adequately account for the inherent problems of this vision and its execution. This is not to single out Cunliffe but rather to say that Lenin Lives! unproblematically articulates a view of social change that has been much-debated within radical thought.

The technique of counter-factual history is used by Cunliffe ‘to identify and draw out the conflicting principles that structure the very fabric of society itself’ rather than merely to say where the world should be now if events had been different (104). Cunliffe shifts between the ‘historical’ world and ‘a better world’, as well as their pasts and futures, in order to emphasise the possibility and rewards of social change. Cunliffe does well to emphasise that social change is not pre-determined but rather the consequence of perpetual struggle (13). Moreover, he makes the point that capitalist society has become obsessed with an immutable, stagnating present in its suppression of alternative social forms (10-12).

Lenin Lives! has two issues that have a central source in a fundamental problem of revolutionary thought. Firstly, the text does not adequately account for the problem of the origins and nature of revolutionary struggle and how this manifests in the order of post-revolutionary society. Secondly, the text is far too confident of its own reading of Marx to tell a story about what a post-revolutionary society might look like. The more fundamental problem, then, is the essential unknowability of what a post-capitalist society might look like and what human beings might be after the revolution, so to speak.

In terms of the first point, Bakunin’s critique, following the split of the First International, that an autocratic revolution begets itself and does not truly seek the cause of human freedom, remains relevant.[1] This is often seen as a criticism of Marx himself but Marx rejected Bakunin’s critique that dictatorship of the proletariat meant rule by an autocratic elite. When Bakunin challenged Marx on this point, asking if 40 million Germans would therefore be in the revolutionary government, Marx replied ‘Certainly, because the thing starts with the self-government of the commune.’[2]

This critique of the state as a tool for revolutionary struggle is articulated further by Marx in both The Civil War in France and the 18th Brumaire,[3] as well as being repeated in the preface to the 1872 German edition of The Communist Manifesto.

…the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes… The centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs of standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and judicature – organs wrought after the plan of a systematic and hierarchic division of labour – originates from the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middle class society as a mighty weapon in its struggle against feudalism.[4]

This is a point that Lenin himself was particularly familiar with and argued its case in writing, to a point.[5] Cunliffe is not blind to this point and even notes the Left’s failure to abolish the state and, even worse, to not even register this as a failure (46). He also suggests that the state would eventually wither away by 1970s in the ‘better world’, 60 years after the revolution (87, 97), but this seems like a long time to retain the apparatus of domination. The modern state, after all, is a product of a historically specific set of social relations, capitalism. Continuing its existence beyond the revolution is to carry its baggage along with it and to burden the post-revolutionary society with it.

In discussing the Utopian Socialists (28-32), there is little account of Marx’s critique of the limitations and problems of the early Socialists: that the utopianists took capitalism with them when they built their fantasy lands. This is certainly the failure of the Russian revolution: the Bolsheviks did not realise what aspects of capitalism they took with them in building their new world. Admittedly, the story of the ‘better world’ in this book takes the Russian revolution as the first chapter of a global revolution. However, there is a blind spot in the argument posed here. Lenin Lives! argues that a global revolution would prevent the failures of the Russian revolution:

Even in the realms of the counterfactual it would be absurd and anachronistic to imagine that a communist Western Europe in the 1920s would be like a Stalinist Eastern Europe in the 1950s… Authoritarianism, single-party rule and dictatorship remains the malady of uneven and under-development and economic backwardness, and one of the core propositions of Marxism remains that capitalism powers both economic and political progress (86-87).

This is a very bold claim. Firstly, it seems much like wishful thinking at best that technological advancement or economic growth would have prohibited authoritarianism developing in the ‘better world’. Secondly, while it seems fair to suggest capitalism is a restless mode of production, always revolutionising production and disturbing social conditions,[6] it remains a fundamentally hierarchical and exploitative set of social relations.

In articulating the future of the ‘better world’, there is much left out in the detail of how this world works. For example, the great revolutionary struggles that lead to the overthrow of European capitalism describe decisions being made but with little sense of who is making them, or how they are made. For example, the ‘German Union of Socialist Council Republics’ invades the German Democratic Republic in 1925 (66) but what body chooses this course? Cunliffe merely says it is ‘under working class leadership’ but this seems like a fudge, especially given the great cost of such a deed. So too in this ‘better world’, Trotsky’s armoured train is ‘welcomed and feted’ wherever it goes (66), while in the future of 2017, a newly-built spaceship is named after Lenin (24). As such, there remains the worrying mixture of a hero-worshipping cult (with their own armoured trains and spaceships) in this ‘better world’ but workers who make fair, autonomous and collective decisions.

In rejecting bourgeois democracy, the Bolsheviks instead embraced dictatorship and, in that, a very familiar form of dictatorship. Not the dictatorship advocated by Marx and Luxemburg, which does not bear any resemblance to the state we know, but a seizure of power by an elite for their sectional interests, bourgeois dictatorship. As Luxemburg articulates her prophetic fears over the form of post-revolutionary Russia here:

In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense.[7]

The problem, then, is not necessarily to be found in the failure of how the Revolution proceeded but instead how it began. The vanguardism of Lenin was, by its nature, an elite project that dragged a population along with it and so the form of the Soviet Union followed the original shape of the Revolution.[8] As noted though, Cunliffe makes this a global revolution, not merely a national one, but it still so clearly follows the forms of the Russian Revolution and its ideologies. As such, there is a steadfastness to this vision of revolution that seems hard to accept.

As Marx noted, humanity would not just have to participate in the overthrow of capitalism as a whole but, in doing so, they would be remade into something completely different.

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.’[9]

In this sense, one cannot help but be highly sceptical of Cunliffe’s view of a successful socialist revolution since it replicates so much of the ideology and goals of capitalist society itself. For example, the debate between the ‘Solists’ and the ‘neo-Cosmists’ (26) is indicative of this. While the pleasant point is made that this is merely a disagreement between two schools of thought and not a civil war, a fundamental mystery remains over the debate: the Age of Exploration was a consequence of capitalism and inherent to it was conquest. As such, why would communists want to adventure in space when they must already be content?

As such, then, one cannot help but be drawn to Luxemburg’s point about the difficulty of conceiving, let alone imagining, what this ‘better world’ we all hope for might look like. As she argued, ‘the practical realization of socialism as an economic, social and juridical system is something which lies completely hidden in the mists of the future.’[10]

In the epilogue, Cunliffe suggests that socialism would finally liberate humanity from Marxism itself (129) since a critique of capitalism would no longer be necessary in such a world. This seems like a problematic view since historical materialism was never wedded to a particular mode of production – although it was birthed in one – but instead sought to understand society by focusing on the material basis and social relations of production. In that sense, that Marx’s way of thinking about society would atrophy is a little disconcerting since its relevance would remain no matter how people live.

Given the allusions to science fiction literature in this book both directly (117-120) and indirectly (24-30), it is worth noting that future Soviet xeno-ethnographers in the Strugatsky Brothers’ sci-fi novel Hard To Be A God (1964) have their own developed version of historical materialism called Basis Theory, which is used to understand their own as well as alien societies.

Continuing in this literary theme, Lenin Lives!, in more than one sense, is redolent of Ursula K LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, not just in imagining an alternative – and potentially ‘free’ – society but in the way time is played with to convey an important point about social change. LeGuin’s novel, subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, focuses on two worlds: Urras, very much like our own world, and Anarres, an anarcho-syndicalist commune exiled from Urras. LeGuin also alternates between past, present and future to articulate the theory of time and its moral implications developed by the book’s central character, Shevek. Shevek criticises another character’s acceptance of the current order on this basis:

You don’t understand what time is… You say the past is gone, the future is not real, there is no change, no hope. You think Anarres is a future that cannot be reached, as your past cannot be changed. So there is nothing but the present… And least of all can you have the present, unless you accept with it the past and the future. Not only the past but also the future, not only the future but also the past! Because they are real… You will not achieve or even understand Urras unless you accept the reality, the enduring reality, of Anarres. You would rather destroy us… rather than admit there is hope! We cannot come to you. We can only wait for you to come to us.[11]

The view that real social change cannot be achieved because of the events of the past is criticised by LeGuin here. By focusing on an eternal present, the past is ignored and the future never achieved. Lenin Lives!, for all its flaws, is still an exhortation, both implicitly and explicitly (133), to break free from the past, to embrace a future and to discover what a better world might look like. As the book notes, nearly anything is better than this one.

[1] Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy (1873)

[2] Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy (1873); Marx, The Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy (1874)

[3] Marx, Karl, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Ch.7

[4] Marx, The Civil War in France (1871), The Paris Commune

[5] Lenin, State & Revolution (1917), Ch.3.1

[6] Marx & Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1847), Ch.1

[7] Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (1918), Ch.6

[8] This is redolent of the Strugatsky Brothers’ book The Doomed City (1975), an allegory of the failures and problems of the Soviet Union itself.

[9] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology (1852), Part 1

[10] Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (1918), Ch.6

[11] Ursula K LeGuin, The Dispossessed ([1974] 2002), p.287


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