Lenin Lives! A Disorders Forum: Author’s Response

This post wraps up our forum on Philip Cunliffe’s Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution, 1917-2007 (Zero Books, 2017). See here for the introduction and responses from Jamie Allinson and Alex Sutton.


I am delighted not only by Jamie Allinson’s and Alex Sutton’s intellectual generosity, but also their careful attention to the detail of the inverted counter-factualism. Both Allinson and Sutton take me to task in seeking to create a Marxist ‘social science fiction’, Allinson for the lack of ‘verisimilitude’. Sutton takes these criticisms further. He enjoins me not only to identify what we might call the Singularity of the Left – that point at which things went decisively wrong – but also criticises me for not agonising in sufficient detail over the political problems of my counter-factual world as well the actually existing world. Sutton asks, for example, which specific institutional body would be responsible for deciding to annihilate a fictional puppet-state of West Germany ensconced in the post-war Rhineland by a counter-revolutionary League of Nations that I portray in the book.

Yet I explicitly set myself against any attempt to construct the ‘verisimilitude’ of a counter-factual history in every precise detail. This was partly a stylistic choice, heeding Ken Macleod’s warning against the tedious introverted detail that preoccupies ‘alt history’ Internet chat forums. More than this, though, it was also an intellectual choice, chosen in opposition to that notorious, barren search for the single moment at which things definitively ‘went wrong’. As Slavoj Žižek has said, this is one of the most insidious traps for the left. Loren Goldner’s summing up of these debates cannot be bested, and is worth quoting at length:

Into the mid-1970’s, the ‘Russian question’ and its implications was the inesca­pable ‘paradigm’ of political perspective on the left, in Europe and the US, and yet 15 years later seems like such ancient history. This was a political milieu where the minute study of the month-to-month history of the Russian revolution and the Comintern from 1917 to 1928 seemed the key to the universe as a whole. If someone said they believed that the Russian Revol­ution had been defeated in 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, or 1936, or 1953, one had a pretty good sense of what they would think on just about every other political question in the world: the nature of the Soviet Union, of China, the nature of the world communist parties, the nature of Social Democracy, the nature of trade unions, the United Front, the Popular Front, national liberation movements, aesthetics and philosophy, the relationship of party and class, the significance of soviets and workers’ councils, and whether Luxemburg or Bukharin was right about imperialism.

Continue reading

Advertisements

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

The Face Of Sexuality: Why Do AI-Generated Sexual Orientations Matter?

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Weber is the author of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge which has been the subject of a symposium on this blog, besides also being an occasional contributor to the blog. This text is based on comments presented at the 2017 European International Studies Association Annual Conference, Barcelona, on the panel ‘The Politics and Responsibility of IR in an Age of Crisis’.

A Stanford University study by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski that recently went viral repackages long discredited beliefs that a person’s face is scientifically readable for specific personality traits (also see this). The study claims artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition technology can determine a person’s sexual orientation, with 16-30% greater accuracy than the human eye. The study analyzed more than 35,000 images on a US dating website of white, able-bodied, 18-40 year olds for ‘fixed’ (e.g., nose shape) and ‘transient’ facial features (e.g., grooming styles, weight, facial expressions). Researchers compared their AI-generated sexual orientations against sexual orientations researchers found from dating profiles, which researchers established ‘based on the gender of the partners that [website users] were looking for’.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations immediately labeled the study ‘junk science’. Social scientists will have little trouble understanding why. For example, the study’s sample is skewed in terms of race, age, (dis)ability, and location (online and in the US). Furthermore, the study’s coders failed to independently verify crucial information like age and the problematic category sexual orientation, which are things people regularly lie about on dating sites.

What may be less obvious to many reading the study are some of the other ways biases are created via coding errors or are written into the facial recognition algorithm. For example, the study restricts the range of sexual orientations, sexes and genders to neat yet inaccurate binaries: gay and straight, male and female, masculine and feminine. The study also mistakenly equates sexual orientation with sexual activity, even though people who have same-sex sex do not necessarily identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. And the study treats ‘transient’ facial features as if they are natural or ‘native’ to ‘gay culture’ and ‘straight culture’, rather than understanding them as performative acts that are highly dependent upon context. In addition to naturalizing culture, this move overdetermines how ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are coded. For it fails to recognize that people who choose to go on a dating site will likely post photos of themselves that can be easily understood through sexualized stereotypes, which they may or may not perform in other on- and off-line contexts.

If there are so many problems with this study, why should any of us give it a second thought, particularly (IR) scholars, policymakers and activists? And why should this study be the focus of reflections on the politics and responsibility of International Relations in an age of crisis?

I have five answers.

Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds

Game of Thrones - Race as a Floating Signifier

Four years ago, I tried to capture a discomfit with the new embrace of the pop-cultural within IR. The focus then was on the way putatively mainstream categories were put to use in the interpretation of science and speculative fiction. This year at ISA (see passim), I extended and nuanced that view, to account both for the great rise in pedagogical uses for the pop-cultural, and to push more forcefully at ‘critical’ approaches to the same.[1]

Like others, I am hostile to the success of zombies (or, to be frank, Dan Drezner’s version of zombies) as a useful way to stimulate reflection on world politics in all its variety. For zombie-IR, elements of the speculative and the fantastical are recruited to make sense of world politics not because they trouble or undermine or reimagine it, but because they replicate it in a way that is taken to be more easily digestible than speaking directly of world politics itself. Such simplification has come under challenge (here, here, and here, for example) and so cannot be said to characterise all approaches to the speculative. But the trend – what I term the speculative as descriptive analogy – certainly appears to be the most popular one. Let us call this Drezner’s Law: the more directly an ‘analysis’ of pop culture reflects dominant categories and concerns, the more broadly that analysis will be consumed.

Despite a single footnote on the zombie as metaphor, and a small gesture towards them as expressions of capitalist consumerism, the main accomplishment of Theories of International Politics and Zombies is to reify monolithic theories, which are taken to be no less than ‘paradigms’. In a feat of definitional feat, those dominant ‘paradigms’ (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, Neo-Conservatism, Role Theory) in turn hold the key truths to world politics “whether researchers admit it or not” (really?). It seems churlish to deny the usefulness of pedagogical lubricant, but it also becomes hard to avoid the sense of scholars bored to tears by the delivery of paint-by-number theory courses and the yearly task of boiling down paradigms and lineages into the simplest distinctions (Realists think states matter, liberals are interested in cooperation, constructivists believe in, well, social construction). Articulating these ideas through a new universe alleviates the boredom, however fleetingly, and raises a wry smile at the comparisons. The popular appeal of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones also makes it possible to generate interest in more complex themes through blog and social media ‘outreach’, as if mobilising cultural artefacts to recruit students or prove that scholars are somehow ‘in touch’. The human face of political science.

Continue reading

Gender Trouble, Racial Salvation and the Tragedy of Political Community in ‘Game Of Thrones’ (2012-2013)

A shamefully-delayed commentary on Game Of Thrones, Seasons the Second and Third, since the first one went so well. As before, *great clunking mega spoiler alert*. You have been forewarned.


Recall three justifications for an analysis of pop culture politics. First, for all their superficial escapism, cultural products represent political ideas and ideologies, and do so in ways that may matter more than what we receive through the news. They are full of desires and fantasies that refract and reflect (and to some extent are themselves) real politics. Second, you can criticise the thematics of the show without hating the show. In fact you can do it while loving the show (and finding the fact of that love interesting in itself). In other words, look, I really like Game of Thrones. Moreover, that as great as comparisons with the source text can be, a TV series is a different kind of beast and is entitled to judgement on its own merits. Third, objections that “it’s just a show” don’t wash. If you’re reading this it’s because you have some sense that there are ways of understanding and being embodied in even the lowest of cultural objects (paging Dr Adorno!). That doesn’t mean that the substance of the relationship between media and politics is simple or settled, but it’s there.

Let’s start where we left off last time. It was claimed in some quarters that the plot subverts – even refutes – certain standard typical ideas about the feminine, and critiques feudal social relations along the way. So, rather than being a “racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons”, the many strong, complicated, agentic female roles in fact set Game of Thrones as a critique of patriarchy. But only the most one-dimensional of sexisms regards women as utterly abject. The mere presence of intelligent, or emotionally-rounded, or sympathetic female characters is not enough (and that it might be taken as inherently ‘progressive’ probably tells us a lot about contemporary gender politics). No, the issue is how a cultural product deploys some common tropes of masculinity and femininity and, with appropriate caveats about not reading every plot twist as an allegory, how those celebrate or reinforce certain orderings of gender. So a narrative which makes the family the primary unit, and which does so in a conventionally heteronormative register (twincest notwithstanding), is selling a particular idea of gender (and of community and nation and legitimate violence and…).

In Seasons 2 and 3, a few female figures threaten to upset the patriarchal framework. As before, there is Arya, astute, principled, fierce, and eager to promise death to her enemies. Brienne of Tarth, giant, loyal, lethal, dismissive. Ygritte, rugged, capable, sexually dominant, a hardened killer with no respect for rank (“If you ripped my silk dress, I’d blacken your eye”).[1] And yet in each case the threat is contained and wrapped in some familiar gender constraints.

Continue reading