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.
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.
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.
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.