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.
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.