The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Everybody knows

Lenin Lives!
Philip Cunliffe
Zero Books, 2016

It can be disconcerting to read a book that upends your way of looking at the world. It's even more disconcerting when that book claims your own work as part of its inspiration. About which, more later.

The book's title and Soviet-kitsch cover are deeply ironic: baiting for some, and bait for others. In the alternate-history world Cunliffe imagines, Lenin is almost forgotten, because he succeeded. (It's tempting to add 'beyond his wildest dreams' but success beyond Lenin's wildest dreams would have meant spreading the revolution to the canal-builders of Mars.)

For what Lenin and the Bolsheviks set out to do in 1917 was to detonate an international, indeed global, revolution. This was an immediate perspective, where revolutionary romanticism meant staking all on the world revolution breaking out next week, while sober realism meant bearing in mind that it might be delayed for a few more months. In fact even the realists were too optimistic: it was delayed for a whole year. In November 1918 the red flags went up over the naval base at Kiel, and flew over all Germany within days. And then...

Well, everybody knows.

But what if the grip of German Social Democratic reformism had been that little bit shakier, and the revolutionary Left that little bit better organised and luckier? Cunliffe speculates on what sort of world might now exist, and how it might have come about, if the revolution that began in Russia had not only spread – as it did – but won, as it didn't.

In this missed turn of history, a decade or so of wars and civil wars see the capitalist core countries having gone socialist. The major independent underdeveloped countries have gone democratic, and the former colonial holdings have mostly opted to remain in loose voluntary federations that have replaced the empires. It's not all plain sailing but the resulting democratic workers' states of Europe and America are much less repressive than Bolshevik, let alone Stalinist, Russia was in our world. Planning emerges from increasing coordination (as indeed it did under the New Economic Policy) rather central imposition. Industrialisation proceeds at a brisk but measured, rather than a frantic, pace. Art, science, culture and personal freedom flourish. This is a world with no fascism or Stalinism, no Depression and no Second World War. Whether or not the reader finds it feasible or desirable, it's attractively and vigorously portrayed.

Cunliffe's alternate history has no decisive moment (no Jonbar Point, to use the science-fictional term) that I can see. Instead, the international revolutionary working-class movement (which, as Cunliffe usefully and repeatedly reminds us) actually did exist at the time is imagined as having been just a little bit stronger in arm and clearer in mind than it was in our world. It's by no means an unrealistic speculation. Even in our world, it was a close-run thing. So close, in fact, that stamping out every last smouldering ember of world revolution took tens of years and tens of millions of lives. But its suppression is now, at last, complete.

E. H. Carr, in an article or interview for New Left Review, remarked that all of Marx's predictions had come true, except for the proletarian revolution. Cunliffe's view is gloomier: he thinks that they all came true, including the revolution. It really happened, in 1917-1923, and the revolutionaries bungled it.

When most readers of the Communist Manifesto encounter the passage about how throughout history classes have waged 'an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes' the example that springs to mind is the Fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarians. What Marx and Engels were really alluding to, Cunliffe argues, was subtly different: the Fall of the Republic, rather than the Fall of the Empire. It was the class struggles of patrician and plebeian in the Roman Republic that ended in mutual ruination, and stymied any chance of further progress centuries before the Empire fell.

If readers of the Manifesto are socialists, the common ruin they envisage for bourgeoisie and proletariat is a nuclear war or environmental catastrophe. No such luck, Cunliffe tells us: the common ruin has already happened. The class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat is over. The good guys lost. Get over it.

But the non-socialist reader can take no comfort. The suppression of communism, Cunliffe claims, undermined capitalism, sapping its economic dynamism and political stability. With no competing model – however unattractive in many respects – to keep it on its toes, capitalism becomes a couch potato. With no union militancy and shop-floor organisation to contend with, capitalists have less incentive to innovate and rationalise. With no need to integrate the working class in the affairs of state, mass political participation and engagement have been texted their redundancy notices.

The result, however, is that the elites and the rest of the population are more mutually alienated than they ever were in the class struggle. To the political class and state authorities, the ideas and attitudes of the underlying multitude are as a dark continent, viewed with alarm and suspicion, alternately patronised and deplored. Unmoored from the clash of material interests, politics drifts into a Sargasso Sea of slowly, pointlessly, endlessly swirling debris. Debate degenerates into a grandstanding narcissism of small differences around an elite consensus dedicated solely to keeping the show on the road. Political apathy and populist eruptions are its morbid symptoms. The ruin was mutual, and the ruins are where we must henceforth live.

This exhausted order could in principle totter along indefinitely, were it not for the instabilities, internal and external, that result. The political and moral authority of the state quietly unravels, even as its hard power and reach expand. As Britain's riots of 2011 starkly exposed, social order itself can dissipate overnight. And the quest for moral authority at home is transmitted all too easily into rash adventuring abroad, in the name of democratic and liberal values. To explain, say, the Iraq war as motivated by strategic or economic concerns, a 'war for oil', as leftists are wont to do, is misconceived. There's no underlying interest to expose: the war's liberal-democratic rationalisation really is what it's all about. As Tony Blair said: 'It's worse than you think. I believe in it.'

Readers of my own novels, particularly the Fall Revolution books and some of the more recent ones such as Intrusion and Descent, may find some of the themes outlined above familiar. In the early 1990s when I started writing my first novel, I was convinced that the Left had suffered a whopping, world-historic defeat with the fall of the Soviet bloc regardless of how critical or even hostile they had been to it. However, I did expect that this defeat would in time be overcome.

[Added 10 Jan 2020 The controversial magazine Living Marxism (which became LM and then Sp!ked) spelled out the depth of the defeat and its consequences forcefully in the 1990s, and naturally I paid attention. Cunliffe seems to have drawn on that school of thought too, and in fact has spelled out its logic in Marxist terms more clearly than most. Hence, I think, any parallels. As Cunliffe has kindly clarified, the main source of inspiration in my work for Lenin Lives! was the alt-history novella The Human Front, which doesn't deal with these themes at all.]

Whatever else it does, Lenin Lives! answers a question that has baffled better minds than mine: how on earth did a splinter of the far left mutate into a cadre of contrarian libertarian Brexiters? Two lines of explanation are often explored. The first is that they remain revolutionary communists under deep cover, engaged in some nefarious long-term scheme. The second is that they have been themselves subverted, suborned by the corporations from which they receive funding. I could go into the various reasons why both are wide of the mark, but I've already gone on long enough. By now you can figure it out for yourself:

It's worse than you think. They really believe in it.


So basically we had a choice between socialism and barbarism and chose barbarism?

I'll have to check that out. Alternate history exploring more appealing timelines than our own is disappointingly rare.

I've long been thinking about the scarcity of alternate history considering positive outcomes rather than worse ones--and alternate history about the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and anything related. As both, it definitely sounds interesting--and thanks for giving us the heads-up here.

Thank you for this, Ken. I was inspired by Corbyn’s leadership campaign, and registered as a supporter of the Labour Party, and then became a member. Being of a similar age to you, I can remember the early 1970s, when it did not seem stupid to think that there might be a socialist revolution in Britain. It is difficult to convey to younger generations how those days felt.

It is certainly a good thing that the Labour Party doubled in membership under Corbyn, but this membership, at least where I live, seems typical of the internet age. People join online in a rush of enthusiasm, and pay by direct debit, and but many may never actually meet another member.

Yes, the Labour Party has revived, but the election result starkly shows that class consciousness is woefully low. The nature of our society has changed, and has been changing for decades, but most self-declared Marxists not only do not seem to have addressed this problem, they have not even acknowledged that there is a problem.

It is good to know that I am not alone in describing these times as living in the ruins.

What's this about planning emerging from the coordination inherent in the NEP? I'm not saying you're wrong, just that it's a new one on me - and I'd very much be interested in any recommended reading on that point.

Re planning and the NEP, I probably got it from a distant memory of chapter 4, 'NEP'in Alec Nove's An Economic History of the USSR - a book I can certainly recommend.

Gorbachev, when introduced to Nove, is said to have said "so this is the man who knows the most about the Soviet economy".

Is it really all gone? It's a searingly bleak thought.

"All subsequent history had been that of the damned, of poor devils struggling in the hell these men had pitched them into; and nobody could be judged for how they behaved in hell."

You know, you never wrote a book from Reid's perspective.

Too late to write one from Reid's perspective now!

I should have made clear that I don't share Cunliffe's view of how the 20th century went, or of the current situation, but that would have to be another post sometime.

I think that the RCP to Spiked odyssey can be explained, if a little crudely, by the idea that if one gives up on the ability of the working class to change the world, then one has to look for some other force in society to do the job. As there are only two primary classes -- the working class and the capitalist class -- if the former has had it, then the answer lies with the latter. And if the bulk of the latter are, as Spiked insists, too restricted by self-regulation and self-doubt to do the job, then the task falls to those capitalists who don't feel restricted by regulation and doubt, which just happens to be the most rapacious end of the capitalist class. That's how and why Spiked managed to get $300 000 off the Koch brothers.

Dr Paul (former RCP supporter)

Dr Paul - I've been aware of this tendency since they were a strand of DNA floating in the primordial soup of the early-1970s International Socialists, I've accidentally witnessed one or two crucial stages of their evolution, and I remain perplexed.

«Is it really all gone? It's a searingly bleak thought.»

My guess is that from a marxian point of view the arguments here are anti-historical: changes of political system are inevitable and happen only when production relationships change. So the 1917-1923 international revolution failed because it was not yet the time of the rise of the proletariat. Feudalism after all lasted for over a thousand years before the aristocracy was pushed aside by the overwhelming power of the capitalists, and that transition happened in different decades or centuries in different countries.
Under that view Marx was not wrong, and the transition from capitalism to socialism was not bungled, the timing was way too optimistic, there has been no transition yet to a new set of production relationships that will give the proletarians the power to push aside capitalism.

The problem with that marxian point of view is that a lot of "marxists", especially those of a "syndicalist" persuasion, have been thinking that the socialist revolution is around the corner, and they will soon take power as the vanguards of the proletariat, so pursuing social-democratic politics is a betrayal of the proletariat, when instead it may be the only option.

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