There was an alternative: Review of ‘Lenin Lives’ by Philip Cunliffe (Zer0, 2017)

In his short Lenin Lives: Reimagining the Russian Revolution (Zer0: 2017), Cunliffe explores what the twentieth century could have looked like. He takes as his starting point the key event of the century, and one of the most contentious moments of human history: the Russian Revolution. Celebrating its centenary year — lamented by some, praised by others — Lenin’s seizure of state power in a rural and backward Eastern outpost of European capitalism stands over the “century of extremes” as its determining factor. The accepted narrative is that the Russian Revolution was, on its own terms at least, a success. The Bolsheviks won power and were able to transform Russian society. Lenin, and then Stalin and his bureaucrats, led the socialist world, which was ultimately defeated by the capitalist West. Some historians see the revolution as, in some way or another, doomed from the start; others see the involution of Leninism into Stalinist state capitalism as a tragedy, possibly stemming from Stalin’s political defeat of Trotsky. Cunliffe, though, asks the important question: what if we see the revolution, unable to spread beyond beyond a doomed and oxymoronic “socialism in one country” into a Europe-wide and then global wave of open class struggle and revolutionary upheaval, as having failed? This prompts a further question. What if the revolution had actually succeeded? What would that have looked like, in terms of the struggles of the first half of the twentieth century — and what would our lives in 2017 look like instead?

Cunliffe notes that counterfactual histories have traditionally been the preserve of conservative and military historians. Perhaps all counterfactual thinking reveals something of the psychology of those doing it; worryingly there is a seemingly endless supply of historians wondering (in Cunliffe’s view with a barely-hidden longing) “what if” the Nazis has won the world war or the Confederacy not been quite so decisively defeated in the American Civil war. (Churchill, who rightly comes in for a repeated kicking in Cunliffe’s book, penned a thinly-veiled fantasy of extended Empire, ‘If Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg’, while Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have as their next project Confederate, an alternate history drama where the American Civil war ends in stalemate.) The counterfactual “what if the First World War hadn’t happened?” completes the Big Three of standard counterfactual history. Even the most ham-fisted of these narratives is an exercise, to a certain degree, in balancing necessity and contingency in understanding historical development. Each also outlines, or is premised on, a historical logic that puts some factors as determining, others as determined. Part of the value of Cunliffe’s account is to move away from individual decisions imaginatively to construct some of the class struggles that could have gone on in the aftermath of 1917. In showing how the course of the twentieth century could plausibly have led to global socialism, Cunliffe also shows us how close we really are to communism today. Not in the sense of its imminent arrival but in the sense of capitalism’s radical contingency. In an era in which, as Fredric Jameson has said, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism”, it is an impressive exercise of historical imagination. This is particularly on show in Cunliffe’s tracing of what our lives might be like under global socialism. Also enjoyable are the rewritten biographies of a rogue’s gallery of twentieth century figures, who live very different lives when the social forces that propelled them to prominence are re-routed by the spread of European revolution. Gandhi, Ayn Rand, Hannah Arendt, and Albert Camus are all sent straight down history’s waste disposer in Cunliffe’s alternative timeline. Lenin today persists as something of a historical myth, with his mummified body still on display outside the Kremlin. But in Cunliffe’s timeline he fades into the background, as just an early revolutionary and part of a much wider revolutionary wave.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky (1919)

So where does this leave us now? Lenin Lives is a very enjoyable read, amusing and shot through with a consistent disdain for the accepted heroes of the twentieth century. But it is also a serious book, less about the precise imagined content of a communist 2017, or the exact sequence of a counterfactual twentieth century, than a consistent and important argument about Marxism and the nature of capitalism. Cunliffe’s starting point is that Marxism has a view of capitalism as the most revolutionary form of society we have ever seen, restlessly productive and ceaselessly dynamic. Capitalism powers human progress. But as we look backwards at the past 100 years, we are forced to ask: where is that progress? Cunliffe describes his work as one of “retrofuturism”, and points out that our century’s progress has been pitiful compared to what our predecessors thought it could, and would, have been. Instead of flying cars, that is, we have a choice between a number of better or worse non-flying cars; the achievements of the dishwasher, washing machine and microwave cannot conceal our failure to gain socialised cleaning, laundry, and cooking. As Cunliffe puts it, the only way the twentieth century could have been worse was if we had had a nuclear war. Lenin Lives, then, is not just counterfactual history, but it is a critique of the present. It shows communism not as a utopian castle in the sky, but as a product of human agency, albeit one that we have not yet created.