Marxism and the challenge of
Often Marxism is caricatured as a rigidly deterministic worldview, whose stress on the inevitability of social change allows no room for individual agency. Determinism needs to be carefully differentiated from fatalism, though, “which would leave us as passive spectators of phenomena in which no direct intervention is felt possible.” Voluntarism, or “the fond hope that one can speed up processes through the force of example and self-sacrifice,” lies across from it on the political spectrum. In fatalistic doctrines of history, events transpire as a result of objective factors following with mechanical necessity, whereas in voluntaristic doctrines of history, events transpire as a result of subjective factors brought about “by a gigantic effort of heroism and will.” Yet “Marxian determinism does not seek a compromise halfway in between,” the Italian communist Amadeo Bordiga maintained, “but dialectically and historically rises above them both.”1 His Hungarian colleague Georg Lukács put it succinctly: “Fatalism and voluntarism only appear contradictory to an undialectical and unhistorical mind.”2
Still, the charge of determinism — in the narrow sense, as a synonym for fatalism — has proven difficult to shake. Counterfactual narratives would thus seem a good test for Marxist theory, to see whether it grants that the past might have been otherwise: What if such and such had occurred, instead of this or that? Ex post facto reasoning of this sort does not carry much weight in historical research, to be sure. Necessity is a tricky enough concept even for philosophers, let alone historians, who are taught not to speculate if other possibilities were latent in a given set of facts. “One can always play a parlor game with the might-have-beens of history,” the British chronicler of the Bolshevik Revolution, Edmund Hallett Carr, opined, “but this has nothing to do with determinism, since the determinist will simply reply that the causes had to be different for things to have been different.”3 The source of Carr’s annoyance here was more specific, however, than any general objection to counterfactuals, and concerned the example often chosen as the basis for such conjectures: namely, what the world would be like if October 1917 never took place. As Carr saw it, the conservative motive behind this choice of topic was obvious, indicating a wish to reverse the results of the Russian Revolution.4
Lately, the Slovenian critic Slavoj Žižek has also explored this theme of counterfactuality. Reviewing the essay collection What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians back in 2005, he underscored “the conservative sympathies of ‘what if?’ volumes.” Does this mean that, in order to avoid being labeled a conservative, one has to subscribe to a crudely deterministic vision of the past? In such a vision, whatever ends up happening is all that ever could have happened. Žižek rejects this premise emphatically, however, associating it with the vulgar Marxism of Georgii Plekhanov, Lenin’s onetime mentor. Plekhanov argued that there was a “deeper historical necessity” at work in the transition from Jacobin Republic to Napoleonic Empire in France, beyond the individual traits of Napoleon. Yet this raises the issue of whether something similar was going on in the shift from Bolshevism to Stalinism in post-1917 Russia:
For many, the rise of Stalinism was necessary… such that without Stalin, or in the case of his premature death, another leader would have played the role: maybe even Trotsky, his great rival. But for Trotskyists, as for others (e.g., Kotkin), the role of Stalin’s contingent person was crucial: no Stalinism without Stalin. Had he suddenly disappeared from the scene in the early 1920s, things like the forced collectivization of agriculture and “the construction of socialism in one country” would never have taken place. Was the rise of Stalinism simply an accident, then? In other words, the actualization of just one of the historical possibilities lying dormant after the Bolsheviks’ victory?5
One could extend this argument further, however, pointing out that a political phenomenon like Stalinism perhaps resulted from the fact that revolution failed to spread westward, which left Russia isolated and hence vulnerable to capitalist encirclement. Minor details might have been different if someone else succeeded Lenin, but the overall effect largely the same. This begs the question of whether the fate of the Russian Revolution ultimately depended on the success or failure of the German Revolution in 1919. Adorno later mused that “[h]ad things gone otherwise here in 1919, the potential existed to influence developments in Russia and with great probability prevent Stalinism.”6 Such hypotheticals may seem an idle exercise, or an attempt to save face after the fact, but with the centenary of October 1917 approaching it is opportune to reflect. Žižek, for his part, suggests that “a properly dialectical relationship between necessity and contingency… cannot change the past causally, retroactively undoing what happened at the level of facts, yet it can do so counterfactually, retrospectively altering what happened at the level of meaning.”7
Endnotes, a communist theoretical journal located in Britain and the United States, does not indulge such second-guessing when it comes to the history of failed revolutions. “When we address the question of these failures, we cannot resort to ‘what if’ counterfactuals,” the authors indicate in their inaugural issue, “blaming the defeat of revolutionary movements on everything (bad leaders, inadequate organization, wrong ideas, unripe conditions) other than the movements themselves in their determinate content.”8 But if their defeat was somehow preordained — written in the stars or the historic constellation of forces, as it were — then it is futile to do more than just report the facts. These movements failed because they were bound to fail. Nothing could have been different, so it is impossible to assign responsibility to anyone involved. Interpretations which see failure as the consequence of “betrayal,” “loss of nerve,” or even “miscalculation” are no doubt dissatisfying. Precisely because revolutionaries aspire to historical agency, however, seeking to make history rather than simply be made by history, they must be held accountable for their failings. For this very reason, moreover, one finds them preoccupied with the judgment of posterity, which leads to one of Žižek’s more ingenious reversals:
Seeing as the non-occurrence of the Bolshevik Revolution is a favorite topic for all the “what if?” historians, it is worth looking at how Lenin himself related to counterfactuality. He was as far as could be from any reliance on “historical necessity.” Quite the contrary, his Menshevik opponents were the ones who emphasized the impossibility of omitting one of the “stages” prescribed by historical determinism: first bourgeois-democratic, then proletarian revolution. And so when Lenin claimed this was the Augenblick in his “April Theses” of 1917 — i.e., the unique opportunity to start a revolution — his proposal was at first met with contempt and stupefaction from a large majority of his colleagues. Yet he understood that this chance had been made possible by a variety of circumstances, and that the propitious moment might be forfeited if it was not seized, perhaps for decades. Lenin entertained the alternative scenario: What if we do not act now? It was his acute awareness of the catastrophic consequences of not acting which impelled him to act.9
Žižek forgets, though, that the negative impulsion to act in this example is just another form of historical necessity, what Marx referred to as “absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of theoretical necessity.”10 This counterfactual injunction is likely what Lukács had in mind when he claimed in 1919: “Lenin and Trotsky, as truly orthodox, dialectical Marxists, paid little attention to so-called ‘facts,’ blind to the ‘fact’ the Germans had won, and secured for themselves the military means to march into Petrograd at any time, occupy Ukraine, and so on. Because they grasped the necessary materialization of world revolution, they adjusted their actions to this reality, not the ‘facts’.”11 Marxists regard freedom as insight [Einsicht] into necessity, following Hegel and Spinoza, an accurate appraisal of what must be done in order to liberate mankind.
Gregor Baszak’s short review of the 2017 alternative history Lenin Lives!, by Philip Cuncliffe, follows the notes to this introduction. I am told that Cuncliffe thanks me in the acknowledgments, which is rather unexpected and frankly humbling. Either way, I hope to pick up a copy soon.
1 Amadeo Bordiga. “The Lyons Theses: Draft Theses for the Third Congress of the Communist Party of Italy.” L’Unità. (January 1926). Translator not listed.
2 Georg Lukács. “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (second version). Translated by Rodney Livingstone. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1973). Pg. 4.
3 E.H. Carr. What is History? (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1990). Pg. 97.
4 “Last term here in Cambridge I saw a talk advertised under the title ‘Was the Russian Revolution Inevitable?’ If I had seen a talk advertised on ‘Were the Wars of the Roses Inevitable?’, though, I’d at once have suspected some joke. Historians write of the Norman Conquest or American War of Independence as if what happened was in fact bound to happen. Nobody accuses them of being determinists or of failing to discuss the possibility that William the Conqueror or the American patriots might have been defeated. Whenever I write about the Russian Revolution of 1917 in precisely this way, however — the only proper way, for the historian — I come under attack for depicting what happened as something bound to happen, and for failing to examine the other things which might have happened. Suppose Stolypin had time to finish his agrarian reforms, it is said, or Russia had not gone to war. Perhaps the revolution would not have occurred. Or suppose the Kerensky government had made good, and leadership of the revolution assumed by the Mensheviks or Social Revolutionaries instead of the Bolsheviks… The point here is that today no one seriously wishes to reverse the results of the Norman Conquest or American Independence, so nobody objects whenever historians treat them as a closed chapter. But plenty of people who have suffered, directly or vicariously, from the results of the Bolshevik victory, or still fear its remoter consequences, desire to register their protest against it.” Ibid., pgs. 96-97.
5 See the section “Counterfactuals,” in Slavoj Žižek. Disparities. (Bloomsbury Academic Publishers. New York, NY: 2016). Pgs. 277-281.
6 Theodor W. Adorno. “Those Twenties.” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchphrases. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1998). Pg. 43.
7 Žižek, Disparities. Pg. 278. This is a better formulation than appears elsewhere in the book, where he tries to describe this relationship as “a contingent choice which retroactively becomes necessary,” coming dangerously close Lenin’s warning against dialectical “zigzags” or retroactive justifications.
8 Endnotes. “Bring Out Your Dead.” Volume 1: Preliminary Materials for a Balance Sheet of the Twentieth Century. (London, England: 2008). Pg. 4.
9 Slavoj Žižek. “Lenin Shot at Finland Station! Review of What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians.” London Review of Books. (Volume 27, № 16: August 2005). Pg. 23.
10 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism: Against Bruno Bauer. Translated by Clemens Dutt and Richard Dixon. Collected Works, Volume 4: August 1844-late Autumn 1845. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975). Pg. 37.
11 Georg Lukács. “What is Orthodox Marxism?” (first version). Translated by Michael McColgan, in Tactics and Ethics: The Question of Parliamentarism and Other Essays. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2014). Pg. 26.
Philip Cunliffe, Lenin Lives! Reimagining
the Russian Revolution, 1917-2017.
Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2017.
When President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord on June 1, 2017, for many liberals it meant that doom was upon us, that the earth was surely soon to be uninhabitable. Yet, if the Paris Accord was the best shot that our civilization had at survival, we were perhaps doomed from the start. NASA scientist James Hansen, at least, one of the earliest voices to raise the alarms about the effects of climate change, had deemed the Accord to be thoroughly inadequate to begin with.1
Here’s an alternative way in which the year 2017 might have unfolded:
It is an unseasonably warm November 2017 in Leningrad, although within planned temperature ranges. There is discussion among atmospheric engineers and climate planners whether to make minor adjustments to the cloud systems they are responsible for in order to reflect more sunlight away from the northern hemisphere, or whether to accelerate the construction of orbiting Lagrange space mirrors intended for longer term climate control.2
In this scenario, climate change is understood to be an administrative problem, albeit one that is administered by “climate planners” who consciously choose to set earth’s thermometer at a specific temperature range.
In the real world of today, Leningrad is St. Petersburg, Russia is governed by a neoliberal autocrat, and earth’s climate is out of control. The counterfactual history envisioned above was penned by Philip Cunliffe, author of the new book Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017, published by Zero Books. As the title suggests, the book imagines an alternative history of the twentieth century, one in which the October Revolution was soon followed by successful revolutions in the capitalist centers of the West, in England, France, Germany, and — the big prize — the United States.
Writing counterfactual history, Cunliffe notes, has so far been the domain of conservative revisionists. In one such infamous counterfactual, for example, Winston Churchill envisioned his dream scenario — the glorious ascendancy of a racialized Anglo-Saxon global empire, had Robert E. Lee only won the battle of Gettysburg (85). Yet, as Cunliffe usefully points out, the notion of “what if” appears to have been inscribed into the very project of Bolshevism itself, a project “self-consciously predicated on counterfactuals” (20; italics in the original). What, in other words, if Lenin’s plan that a revolution in Russia would provide the spark that would light the flames of revolution in Germany and elsewhere had actually succeeded? Lenin didn’t know quite what would happen in the wake of the October Revolution, but it was a gamble worth making. Human freedom required it.
Most of Lenin Lives! is devoted to envisioning in some detail a set of (at times bloody) events throughout the course of the fictional 1920s to 1970s in which piece by piece the capitalist nations of the West succumb to organized proletarian pressure and turn socialist. By the “late 1960s,” humanity begins to colonize Mars (127). By the 1970s, we have essentially completed the withering away of the state and the transition to communism (97).
Some of these scenarios are enlightening, some amusing (Churchill rotting away in exile in reactionary Canada, for instance), some perhaps beside the point. The book’s true value — and it is immense — lies, however, in recognizing that the dystopian experiences of the twentieth century have all been conditioned by the definitive defeat of the world revolution in the early 1920s. Whatever personalities or causes appear to preoccupy the minds of the last remnants of the undead left today, we realize, would have been circumvented had the revolution succeeded. Left sectarian splits based on historical roles played by Trotsky, FDR, Stalin, Mao, or Castro have all been forestalled by the successful revolution. They all would have lived, Cunliffe acknowledges, although they would have led mostly insignificant lives, often not even amounting to footnotes in the alternative history books of Lenin Lives!. Interestingly, the list of relative historical nonentities would have included Lenin himself, seeing how he would have ruled over the least essential, because most backward, country in the entire chain of global revolutions — a scenario that would have been to Lenin’s own liking, of course.3
Another important realization, and in many ways the most crucial one, deserves quoting at length. Rather than a doctrine for Third World revolts, Marxism was, according to Cunliffe,
designed to uplift and in so doing transform and improve the most advanced societies, the wealthiest, most politically progressive and technologically sophisticated states, building not only on the civic and political freedoms of liberalism but also the economic achievements of capitalism. (90)
As those generations that followed upon the dystopic turns of the early to mid-twentieth century, especially the New Left generation and its children, had come to think, the last vestiges of the revolution were rather to be found in what would come to be called “the margins” of society. The belief that the “most oppressed” would also be the most revolutionary, Cunliffe helps us realize, is itself predicated upon the (self-)defeat of the Left throughout the twentieth century. It is an expression of despair. Lenin Lives! will be precisely the most provocative where those shaped by contemporary post-colonial sensibilities will wonder how the redemption of human civilization could have possibly rested on the shoulders of developed bourgeois nations. Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine get reinterpreted in Lenin Lives! as the foundation upon which a hemispheric American socialist republic would arise — as the last act of the American Revolution (72-79). Kudos to Cunliffe for upholding the American revolutionary tradition!
There is no New Left in Cunliffe’s counterfactual history; no Stalinism to provide it with its intellectual and political foundations; no anti-colonial revolt upon which the apologists of defeat would place their hopes (the colonial possessions of a socialist United Kingdom immediately accede to remaining within a now planetary socialist federation ); no New Left reinterpretation of human history as essentially a war between homogenous race groups4; no postmodern degeneration of thought that would cheerfully come to affirm the calamitous history we have inherited; and notably, too, no Frankfurt School, “the ruminations” of which the “world will be spared” (124). What reads as an intentional swipe at Theodor Adorno, who in the counterfactual world would watch the revolutions unfold from the sidelines, mostly devoting his time to writing about music, would naturally have been warmly welcomed by him. The problem with philosophy, Adorno notes in the opening lines of his Negative Dialectics, lies in the fact that it “lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.”5 A successful socialist world revolution would have entailed the process of overcoming philosophy itself — its becoming “worldly” (and the world “philosophical”), as Karl Marx noted.6
In other words, “The continued historic significance of the Russian Revolution is testimony to its ultimate failure” (57). That we have never outstripped the need to study the history of the Left — to study Lenin and Adorno, for example — is the result of the revolution’s defeat, a defeat that continues to haunt us to this day. If we understand the task of socialism as one of initially transforming the most advanced capitalist nations, this transformation would occur on the basis of capitalism itself,7 as Cunliffe insists, not its one-sided negation through an abstract and primitivist “anticapitalism.” Yet, it is the latter undialectical attitude toward capitalism that the Left often adopts today. Consequently, this Left is largely made up of what Cunliffe diagnoses as “a morass of sub-anarchistic and ecological groups” (32), desperate as they are to scrape by on the margins of political relevance.
Absent a revolutionary Left, the way the crisis of society presents itself most acutely today is as “the suppression of capitalism itself” (12; italics in the original). “As a social system,” Cunliffe goes on,
propelled by social struggles between economic groups more than it is a system defined by market competition, it was inevitable that a shift in the balance of forces between these groups would impact the social system itself. It is defeat and the shattering of unions that helps explain the sinking of the richest countries in the world into low inflation economies with stagnating real wages. It is defeat that helps explain the fragmented and tiered labour markets of Europe that set groups of workers against each other. It is defeat that helps explain the decline of productivity growth, the failure to harness new technologies for economic growth and progress, and wilting rates of business investment. (12)
It is true, the dynamism of capitalism was indeed predicated on a historic condition in which the “contending classes” (13) were grappling for power. In the picture that Cunliffe draws, nineteenth century liberalism, at times a noble utopianism in its own right, has been superseded by the near universal accommodation to the crisis-proneness of capitalism in the twentieth century.
In this context, Cunliffe appears to imply, though, that the ultimate cause for the revolution’s failure is that it succumbed to waves of “repression” first and foremost (7). That “repression” played an important role is of course beyond doubt; any attempt at revolution will immediately spark a counterrevolution, as Cunliffe reminds us (8). Often on the Left, however, blame is laid solely at the feet of the right — we would live in a better world today, if only it hadn’t been for COINTELPRO, as is frequently said by elderly New Leftists.8 Cunliffe is eager to point out the pathologies of the Left today, though he spends too little time considering the political crises and debates of Second International social democracy that decisively contributed to the course which history ultimately took. There, too, what happened in the wake of the October Revolution is not all that needs to be said about the matter. Military contingency appears to trump deeply theoretical and political disputes in Cunliffe’s narrative, and what we’re left with is a vision of socialism as essentially a techno-scientific fix for a society held back by a triumphant capitalist class. Yet, why did the revolutions in Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere collapse so quickly (albeit not without a fight)? Why did the October Revolution remain really just a spark and amount to nothing more? Can the roots of the Revolution’s quick suppression not also be located in the fact that the political struggles against revisionism had actually not been won by its eminent combatants, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, leaving the predominance of reformism in the Second International’s member parties essentially intact? A more interesting “what if” to raise in this context might have been the one that asked what would have happened if Rosa Luxemburg had decided to split the Social Democratic Party of Germany long before World War I (perhaps the ground for another counterfactual). Her followers’ patched-up response in the wake of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 proved to be too little, too late, as the SPD’s protofascistic right-wing had already wrested control over it long before the War.9
On the other hand, what’s deeply commendable about the book is its ability to counter philosophical tendencies of the latter half of the twentieth century, tendencies that argue for the end of “grand narratives,” by precisely persisting in the need to narrativize the history of modern bourgeois society along those vastly grand scales. How else could we have a sense of where our politics might take us, if we did not permit ourselves the freedom to imagine the social totality (and our subject positions within it) to be transcendable? Since many on the Left today see society to be made up of a multitude of irreconcilable monads, forever determined by their identities,10 this same Left has ironically wound up proving Margaret Thatcher’s dictum correct that there was no such thing as society. And since there is nothing else that binds us together, political change will at best be a matter of mere contingency, an “event,” rather than the result of the conscious actions of political forces struggling over its direction.
Ultimately, it is the gigantic “what if” of the historical necessity of socialism that continues to task us. Lenin Lives! provocatively forces us to consider the possibility that all of the crises evident today are merely the logical result of a society that has remained incapable of stripping itself off an outdated form — capitalism. When in the year 1850, Marx spoke of the necessity of “permanent revolution,” he tasked his comrades with being as radical as reality itself.11 Capitalism already appeared as the revolution, one desperate, however, for its political transcendence in the global dictatorship of the proletariat. Whatever dynamism capitalism seems to set into motion, the fact that its own ultimate goal is nothing else but the valorization of capital means that innumerable economic and political crises will keep recurring, to the detriment of the contending classes. To let capitalism fulfill its promise, would mean to allow for its self-overcoming through socialism, a vision very elegantly outlined by Cunliffe. Lenin Lives! is tremendously effective at reminding us what had once been possible — and might again be so.
1 Oliver Milman, “James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud’,” The Guardian, December 12, 2015.
2 Philip Cunliffe, Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution 1917-2017 (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2017), 24. Hereafter referenced parenthetically.
3 Lenin, after all, recognized that Russia would hold a diminished role if more developed capitalist nations were to go socialist: “It would also be erroneous to lose sight of the fact that, soon after the victory of the proletarian revolution in at least one of the advanced countries, a sharp change will probably come about: Russia will cease to be the model and will once again become a backward country (in the ‘Soviet’ and the socialist sense)” (“Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder).
4 An early example of this can be found in Susan Sontag’s racist assertion that “The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.” Contribution to the symposium “What’s Happening to America,” Partisan Review 34, no. 1 (Winter 1967): 57-8. Italics in the original.
5 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 2007), 3. See also Chris Cutrone, “Adorno’s Leninism,” Platypus Review 37 (June 2011).
6 Karl Marx, “To Make the World Philosophical,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 9-11.
7 In his 1920 pamphlet “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin emphasizes “the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism” (italics in the original).
8 Consider as well that seemingly no leftist account of 20th century America can go without mention of McCarthyism, as if by the 1950s we had still been dealing with a vibrant Communist mass party and its imminent rise to power. Due to Stalin’s catastrophic misleadership of the Communist International, there was hardly any political party for socialism left in the United States by the time of the witch hunts.
9 See Sebastian Haffner’s extraordinary account in Failure of a Revolution: Germany 1918-1919(Chicago: Banner Press, 1986).
10 It is no exaggeration to stress the fatalistic side of an identity-based politics. As both Jason D. Hill and Thomas Chatterton Williams have been able to show, what’s deeply embedded in the race-first politics of Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, is the pessimistic belief that “white supremacy” is an eternal and unshakeable truth, the only “grand narrative” there is, if you will. In the process, both writers point out, Coates manages to strip any potential political actors seeking to combat injustice of actual agency. See Jason D. Hill, “An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Dream is Real,” Commentary, September 13, 2017; and Thomas Chatterton Williams, “Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power,” The New York Times, October 6, 2017.
11 The full quote goes thus: “Although the German workers cannot come to power and achieve the realization of their class interests without passing through a protracted revolutionary development, this time they can at least be certain that the first act of the approaching revolutionary drama will coincide with the direct victory of their own class in France and will thereby be accelerated. But they themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.” “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League” (emphasis in the original).