Lenin Lives! A Disorders Forum: Let’s Take a Look at What You Could Have Won!

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.

Lissitsky’s ‘Cloud Irons’, from the Architectural Review

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.

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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.

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Radicals for a Sensible Foreign Policy

James Gillray - Promised Horrors of the French Invasion - Burke, French Revolution, caricature, Gillray

Authoritarianism is globally resurgent. Of that there can be no doubt. The demagoguery club welcomes its latest initiate in the person of Jair Bolsonaro, who promises a “cleansing never seen before in the history of Brazil” against left activists and the ‘communists’ of the Workers’ Party. On social media, a factoid circulates: over half the world’s population now lives under far-right or reactionary regimes.[1] The electoral pattern is by turns terrifying, stupefying, and paralysing. Observers link the new authoritarian populism to anxieties over open borders and open markets, commonly translating into a virulent hatred of migrants and minorities. The limits of socio-economic ‘legitimate concerns’ are discernible not only in the bloody trail of political assassination and domestic terrorism, but in the paranoid fantasies of fascism’s new fanbase: Lula is a certified paedophile, Hillary Clinton is a sex-trafficker, George Soros is a trans rights master-puppeteer, gender theory is Ebola dispatched by Brussels, that sort of thing. It becomes harder with each day to dismiss aficionados of Infowars and Stormfront as mere gadflies on the conservative rump. Are they not more like its ideological engine? Under such conditions, the melancholy science of Theodor Adorno and company retains a certain appeal.

It seems obvious that the new authoritarians are nativist, nationalist, and isolationist. Their ad hoc collaboration predicts the end of liberal global governance (the reputed ‘rules-based international order’), the better to return to 19th century categories. But as Quinn Slobodian has succinctly argued, the current coalitions of the right do not favour direct retreat so much as a new kind of segregated interdependence: territorialised identity politics married to an international division of labour:

“Like Hong Kong and Singapore, these zones would not be isolated but hyper-connected, nodes for the flow of finance and trade ruled not by democracy (which would cease to exist) but market power with disputes settled through private arbitration. No human rights would exist beyond the private rights codified in contract and policed through private security forces… The maxim would be: separate but global.”

To be sure, the alt-reich do not wholly share this ‘free trade’ agenda, but here too paradoxical forms of internationalism are at work. Even in the 1930s, fascists believed in exporting domestic policy, aiming at the establishment of an organicist world order – what the Italian corporatist philosopher Arnaldo Volpicelli called “an internationalist doctrine after so many assertions and celebrations of ultra-nationalism”. Today, identitarian movements coordinate across borders: Nigel Farage lectures to the Alternative for Germany; the professional troll Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (with the faux-everyman ‘Tommy Robinson’ as his alias) enjoys the largesse of America’s extreme conservatives; sieg-heiling half-wit Richard Spencer flounders in his own attempt at a grand European tour. The extent to which xenophobes and neo-fascists desire a new ordering principal for the world is a matter for debate. But the otherwise unstable and provisional national coalitions of the right are strikingly aligned on several fronts, from an indistinct and wildly ahistorical ‘western chauvinism’ to the preeminence afforded to the heterosexual family and its unreconstructed father figure to a penchant for anti-semitic conspiracy tropes. Reactionary international theory is back. Continue reading

Race and the Undeserving Poor: Response

This is my response to the commentaries graciously provided by Sara Salem, Naeem Inayatullah, Luke De Noronha, Rick Saull, and Lisa Tilley, who also organized the forum.

Sara’s contribution geographically extended my focus on British empire to an engagement with Dutch empire. I found it especially telling that her thoughts on the white-middle-class as the postcolonial container of the national subject implicated white degeneracy in the preservation of empire. My friend, artist Denise LeDeatte, wrote in her art-piece African Violet that the Achilles heel of white supremacy has always been white poverty. I find this observation even more telling after reading Sara’s exacting intervention. I wonder if it’s possible to develop a critique of white poverty that speaks across the diversity of European empires and their postcolonial legacies.

Naeem directed our attention towards the relationship (or not) between hierarchies of race and hierarchies of meritocracy. Naeem and David Blaney’s work on postcolonial political economy has been extremely important to me. What I am always struck by is their commitment to take the claims and logics of late eighteenth century moral philosophy deadly seriously in the formation of political economy critique. This commitment underwrites Naeem’s comments on my book. I think he is implicitly asking: where does it leave us, intellectually and politically, if it is indeed the case that race so exhaustively frames the most influential modern calculus of ethical concern? I provide a partial answer below.

Luke applied the deserving/undeserving distinction to mobility and settlement. I find his intervention arresting. Chapter four of my book focuses on post-war commonwealth migration and the problem, as e.g. Enoch Powell saw it, of settlement. Luke reminds us that the status of being “settled” is always dependent upon others having the status of “immigrant”. The history of settlement is never settled; deserving/undeserving distinctions are continually made through immigrant/settled dyads as much as – or, in intersection with – Black/white divides. Luke’s comments demonstrate the need to develop more capacious understandings of the ways in which sedimented demographics now (always did) structure the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor.

Rick drew attention to genealogies and trajectories of working class resistance against empire and racism. His critique focuses upon the need to account for the contradictions of working class agency when addressing the relationship between neoliberalism and far right forces. I’ll engage in more detail with Rick’s challenge below; but right now, I will just say that, to my mind, the urgency of his critique necessarily grates against the task of accumulating historical evidence, which is a core aim of my book. I can defend the reasons for writing the book as I did, but I can’t deny that his commentary is right to argue that the place in which my argument finishes injects an uncertainty into political action.

Lisa’s contribution is a beautifully understated yet profound critique of white feminism’s complicity in empire. I say understated because the level of her argument requires no grand protagonists to clarify the stakes at play. It is the “ordinary”, the “working class” woman who must – for right or wrong – comply or rebel against the preservation of imperial rule and its attendant racisms.  I think that, when it comes to intellectual work, it is this pitch of register and argument that will tilt the balance in the coming years rather than the high abstract, grand figure-style writing that comes more comfortably to the political economist’s pen. I do wonder where my book falls on this continuum.

All of these commentaries stand on their own as edifying contributions. All raise further questions about the contemporary articulation of race, class, gender and nation – at least as it pertains to Britain/Europe.  But I want to respond to three particular provocations.

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On Situatedness, Knowledges and Absences: A Response to the Symposium on Decolonising Intervention

The final post in our symposium on Decolonising Intervention. A massive thanks to Lee for organising and editing; errors in this final part are mine.  If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention. The earlier posts can be seen here: my introduction, Marta’s response, Lee’s response, Amy’s response and Megan’s response. The whole book is available for free Open Access download here.


My sincere thanks to all the contributors to this symposium for reading the book and responding with such thoughtfulness, seriousness and robustness. I respect them all enormously as scholars and have learned a great deal from their own work – a learning process which continues through this symposium as well. Moreover, the space for deep reading, critical feedback, intellectual argument and reflection is something that the structures of the neoliberal academy increasingly accumulate against; my pleasure and gratitude is deepened by the knowledge that the contributors have all actively managed to hold the door open in spite of this.

My response to their contributions will principally focus on the questions they raise and points of contestation. However, I was happy to see that the basic argument and conclusion of the book – that intervention is intimately structured by relations of colonial difference – is one with which they appear to agree and find compelling as an explanation for the continuation of failure. A primary hope of mine in writing this up was that one could not read this book and look at intervention in post-conflict or ‘fragile’ states, and its various ‘implementation problems’, without this understanding in mind. Having done this work, I find it now very difficult to read assessments of post-conflict state-building or development practice that continue to reproduce various forms of technocratic fantasy about how exactly it is that institutions, polities and economies are ‘built’ or ‘improved’.

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This conclusion and the analysis supporting it has been reached through an engagement with the experiences and perspectives of intervention’s targets in Mozambique. Thus, the book is also concerned with how we study what we study in the field of International Relations – specifically how we cultivate what Niang deftly describes as the ‘value of uncanonical insights of subjects whose absence would otherwise give an incomplete account of the game of intervention’. The contributors had different reactions to this proposition and the way it was taken forward in the book, which I will look at below. Notwithstanding the challenges and complexities of this, I feel that if we are to practice a scholarship which is both more ‘scientific’ and more democratic, this kind of epistemic and methodological re-positioning of scholars vis-à-vis structures of power is absolutely critical. Continue reading

Is it Time to Abandon International Interventions and International Relations? A Response to Sabaratnam

This post is part of a symposium on Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention. Meera’s original post, with links to the other contributions, is here. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! [Photo selection – LJ]


Megan MackenzieMegan Mackenzie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research is broadly- and humbly- aimed at reducing and, eventually ending war; it bridges feminist theory, critical security studies, and critical/post development studies. Megan has contributed research on topics including sexual violence in war, truth and reconciliation commissions, military culture, images and international relations, and women in combat.

 


When I was briefly living in Sierra Leone I was invited on a boat trip off the coast of Freetown with a range of women, including a translator at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a “high-ranking” official within the World Bank who was visiting for three days, a photographer, and a “low-ranking” UN staffer. At one point on the boat trip, we passed what is known as Kroo Bay or Kroo Town, one of the largest “slums” in central Freetown. The Nigerian World Bank official clucked her tongue, seemingly irritated, and said “things just don’t get better here – I don’t get it.” The rest of us sat in silence, including the local male boat driver, who may in fact have lived in the area. This woman was not asking why things “don’t get better,” what “better” might look like, or for responses from those of us in the boat – not least from the driver, who was silent the entire trip. She was making a declaration: “things just don’t get better”, period.

I’ve often thought back to this trip and wondered what this woman did for the rest of her three-day visit to Freetown and what other “poor” country she visited afterward. This small interaction remains a signal to me of two endemic features of both international intervention and international relations. First, it is easy to ask silly questions and draw simple conclusions when you are sitting in a boat looking into a community from the outside. In this story, we were a group of privileged women floating by Freetown. Similarly, I often think of the “discipline” of International Relations (IR) as this boat. IR scholars rely on the stability of “established” knowledge and approaches from which to ask questions and observe “the international.” Second, the encounter signalled the complex relationship between “interveners” and “locals.” The World Bank official was objectively the most powerful person in the boat. Her confidence was impressive, yet she asked no questions, stuck to her set research and work agenda, made many assumptions, and dismissed the local Sierra Leonean as an ignorant worker who should, and did, remain silent. When it comes to powerful IR scholars and approaches, I still can’t help but see the comparisons.

boat

Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique calls out IR scholars for continually floating by “case” countries and concluding, with a “tsk, tsk”, that “interventions keep failing”. What is remarkable and inspiring about Sabaratnam’s contribution is the way she weaves several rich intellectual contributions together. First, she makes the case that existing work on international interventions (including critical, “edgy” work) conducts uninspired, repetitive, and theoretically light analyses that ignore the history of intervention and its roots in imperial, racist logics. Second, Sabaratnam speaks back to the discipline of IR by mapping out IR’s commitment to a) Eurocentrism, b) “core” approaches, c) a laughably generous reading of its own history. Sabaratnam argues that these features of IR limit the study not just of international interventions, but of – well, international relations. In other words, Sabaratnam reminds us of the ways that IR scholars remain fiercely committed to a discipline that is parochial, provincial, and often unhelpful in understanding global politics. In short, IR often doesn’t help us understand international relations. This echoes Ann Tickner infamous conclusion: “International Relations is neither international nor relational.”

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Intervention, Protagonismo and the Complex Sociology of Difference: A Response to Sabaratnam

This post is part of a symposium on Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention. Meera’s original post, with links to the other contributions, is here. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! [Photo selection – LJ]


amyAmy Niang is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her research is informed by a broad interest in the history of state formation, peace and conflict, and Africa’s international relations. Her work has been published in Alternatives, Politics, African Studies, Journal of Ritual Studies, African Economic History, Afrique contemporaine and many edited collections. Her forthcoming publications include “Rehistoricising the sovereignty principle with reference to Africa: stature, decline, and anxieties of a foundational norm”, in Zubairu Wai and Marta Iniguez de Heredia (eds.) Bringing Africa “Back In”: World Politics and Theories of Africa’s Nonfulfillment (Palgrave Macmillan).


A Methodology of Critique

In Decolonising Intervention, Meera Sabaratnam shows how putatively critical perspectives in the intervention literature are not immune to complacency, in part because of an obsession with the intellectual endeavour for its own sake, and their tendency to revisit “the genealogies, contradictions and trajectories of intellectual traditions associated with the West” (p.23) as the key object of intellectual concern. Such conceptualisations of intervention often paper over, if they don’t ignore or invisibilise people as targets of intervention.

Often justified by methodological rationales based on flawed assumptions, these accounts reproduce, intentionally or unintentionally, very bad habits. By doing so, they reinforce the status of Western agency “as the terrain – or ontology – of the political” (p.25). But one’s methodological choices are inseparable from one’s ontological commitments, and therefore one’s political and ideological outlook. Sabaratnam uses a multidimensional, decolonial approach, beginning and ending with ethnographic and empirical recalibrations that are attentive to the life-worlds of targets of intervention, a methodology often scorned in international relations scholarship for its lack of “objective” scientificity.

mario_macilau

Mario Macilau, A Falha Humana (human failure), 2014

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