Review of Lenin Lives

-by Reid Kane Kotlas (originally published on Amazon)

I can think of no other way to describe Cunliffe's remarkable book than as a work of historical significance. That may seem to be a premature assessment, but the force of its argument is that profound, and matched only by the accessible and gripping style of its presentation.

Lenin Lives! is not merely a work of alternative history, despite appearances. It indulges in an imagined alternative timeline branching out from the October Revolution of 1917 as a thought experiment designed to provoke a reconsideration not only of that specific historical moment, but of the entire subsequent history up to and including the present.

Cunliffe's aim is to reveal how the historical significance of the Russian revolution would differ had the German revolution succeeded. He poses this "what if" scenario, not simply for the sake of doing so, but in order to cast a different light on the political project of orthodox Marxism than what we see through the thick fog of confusion emitted by the USSR.

Most people today, whether anti-Communist or pro, only understand the legacy of Marxism through the clouded, cracked, and warped lens of Stalinism. Yet Marx and Engels were clear in their strategic perspective for revolutionary socialism. They write in the Manifesto: "United action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat." Engels, in a draft for the Manifesto titled "The Principles of Communism", splits no hairs, writing:

"Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone? No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.

"Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.

"It will develop in each of these countries more or less rapidly, according as one country or the other has a more developed industry, greater wealth, a more significant mass of productive forces. Hence, it will go slowest and will meet most obstacles in Germany, most rapidly and with the fewest difficulties in England. It will have a powerful impact on the other countries of the world, and will radically alter the course of development which they have followed up to now, while greatly stepping up its pace.

"It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range."

The strategy of revolutionary socialism, following Marx and Engels, was for the working class socialist movement to lead a Europe-wide democratic revolution, as the necessary precondition for the possibility of socialism. The purpose of socialism was not to oppose capitalism, but to develop an even more prosperous and free society on the foundation of the prosperity and freedom of capitalism itself. This was necessary because capitalism, since the industrial revolution, only produced prosperity and freedom at the expense of the working class, whose conditions were continuously deteriorating to the benefit of the owners of capital.

For Marx and Engels, what was good about capitalism could only be further developed through the initiative of the working class, whose subordinate position within the production process was the source of capitalism's contradictory character. Capitalism was not simply an evil system of oppression to be opposed by another, completely different system, but a confused and incoherent mixture of good and bad tendencies, overseen by a class of people with no direct stake in rendering it more coherent.

Cunliffe spends the first two chapters of his brief but engrossing work recovering this original impetus of Marxism, and detailing how different a vision of society it poses than the one we find embodied in the Soviet Union and other examples of "really existing socialism". He then proceeds to an alternative account of the history of Marxism from 1917 onward, in which the project of international revolution at the heart of global capitalism succeeds, and with it, the prospect of a socialist advance upon capitalism. His account is not only intellectually rigorous and true to an otherwise obscure and forgotten history, it moves the heart in ways I can scarcely summarize. It projects a vision of human freedom that was long ago abandoned, but that, as this work itself attests, has not yet been irredeemably lost.

The October revolution was not undertaken to establish "socialism in one country", the project through which Stalin consolidated his leadership in the wake of the failure of the German revolution. Any orthodox Marxist would have known--and Trotsky earned exile and eventually murder for saying so--that "socialism in one country" was a contradiction in terms, not only because Russia was economically backward and devastated by war, but because the entire purpose of socialism was to harness the power of global capitalism for the sake of the global working class, rather than carving out an isolated island within the context of an obviously hostile capitalist world.

The October revolution is typically portrayed as an adventuristic imposition of ill-conceived utopian promises upon the Russian people by a group of perhaps well-intentioned but utterly naive intellectuals. Yet Lenin and the Bolsheviks were very clear, to themselves and to posterity, that the only hope for Russia was that their revolution would spark revolution in the far more developed Germany, which was home to the largest and most powerful socialist movement of its time. Lenin, in 1918, was unambiguous:

"At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German revolution does not come, we are doomed. Nevertheless, this does not in the least shake our conviction that we must be able to bear the most difficult position without blustering.

"The revolution will not come as quickly as we expected. History has proved this, and we must be able to take this as a fact, to reckon with the fact that the world socialist revolution cannot begin so easily in the advanced countries as the revolution began in Russia—in the land of Nicholas and Rasputin, the land in which an enormous part of the population was absolutely indifferent as to what peoples were living in the outlying regions, or what was happening there. In such a country it was quite easy to start a revolution, as easy as lifting a feather.

"But to start without preparation a revolution in a country in which capitalism is developed and has given democratic culture and organisation to everybody, down to the last man—to do so would be wrong, absurd. There we are only just approaching the painful period of the beginning of socialist revolutions. This is a fact. We do not know, no one knows, perhaps—it is quite possible—it will triumph within a few weeks, even within a few days, but we cannot stake everything on that. We must be prepared for extraordinary difficulties, for extraordinarily severe defeats, which are inevitable because the revolution in Europe has not yet begun, although it may begin tomorrow; and when it does begin, then, of course, we shall not be tortured by doubts, there will be no question about a revolutionary war, but just one continuous triumphal march. That is to come, it will inevitably be so, but it is not so yet. This is the simple fact that history has taught us, with which it has hit us very painfully—and it is said a man who has been thrashed is worth two who haven’t."

Stalin, however, appropriated the works of Marx and Lenin to rationalize his own adaptation to the defeat of the revolution, and in the process misrepresented socialism as the kind of totalitarian state necessary not to merely to defy, but to accommodate global capitalism. He thereby also misrepresented the fundamental strategy of Marx and Engels, to which Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky all remained true to their dying days, if in vain.

Today, most simply identify Marx and Lenin with Stalinism, and in the process, forget the profound vision of human emancipation that motivated the world-changing events of 1917. The magnitude of that task only found adequate measure in the magnitude of its failure, which produced not only the USSR and the other "socialist states" of the 20th century, but also the Cold War American Empire. Stalinism redefined the goal of Marxism in order to claim that failure as a success, the defeat of the world revolution as a victory for Russia.

Cunliffe's brilliant argument and equally brilliant prose penetrates through that veil of distortion, allowing, for perhaps the first time in a century, the motive force of Marxism to reveal itself in a popular, digestible form.

Lenin and Luxemburg were well aware that the revolution they sought to lead could fail, and the consequences of such failure would be utterly devastating. Luxemburg summarized the alternative as a crossroads for civilization: either the advance of capitalism toward socialism, or its regression into barbarism. Cunliffe renders the trajectory actually taken by the 20th century unambiguous: Stalin's regime was the degeneration of the socialist movement itself into barbarism, as was fascism, and indeed, the post-war world writ large. As Luxemburg wrote, "The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences."

Luxemburg nonetheless remained hopeful against all hope:

"This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales. In this war imperialism has won. Its bloody sword of genocide has brutally tilted the scale toward the abyss of misery. The only compensation for all the misery and all the shame would be if we learn from the war how the proletariat can seize mastery of its own destiny and escape the role of the lackey to the ruling classes.

"Dearly bought is the modern working class’s understanding of its historical vocation. Its emancipation as a class is sown with fearful sacrifices, a veritable path to Golgotha. The June days, the sacrifice of the Commune, the martyrs of the Russian Revolution – a dance of bloody shadows without number. All fell on the field of honor. They are, as Marx wrote about the heroes of the Commune, eternally “enshrined in the great heart of the working class.” Now, millions of proletarians of all tongues fall upon the field of dishonor, of fratricide, lacerating themselves while the song of the slave is on their lips. This, too, we are not spared. We are like the Jews that Moses led through the desert. But we are not lost, and we will be victorious if we have not unlearned how to learn."

If the revolution failed, she retained hope that the lessons of that failure could be learned, and perhaps someday after the catastrophe settled, that they might be applied again by "people capable of dealing with a new world." The socialist movement has now wandered in the desert for a century, and the cannibalistic madness that seized it very early into that sojourn remains the definitive mentality for its partisans, and its definitive refutation for its detractors. Cunliffe's book has all the force of the tablets Moses brought down from the mountaintop to return his people to the true promise of their faith.

Such a work is absolutely indispensable for anyone who hopes to make sense of the bloody 20th century, and to find a way forward beyond its nightmarish excesses, which continue to plague us a quarter century after the Soviet Union dissolved. No one who deigns to speak about Marx or Lenin should do so without first reading this work, not if they intend to take their subject matter with the seriousness it warrants.

By the end of his life, Lenin was circumspect. He recognized that the revolution had to retreat, and that it may be a long time before another way forward was found. He dreaded the price that would have to be paid to find it, but he never could have anticipated the horrors of Stalin's regime. He was far too optimistic for that, as Cunliffe so powerfully demonstrates in this fitting testament to his memory. Stalinism was not a strategic retreat but a complete surrender to the enemy, which was all too glad to use the USSR as an example of why the working class had to remain subordinate to their masters in perpetuity: it would be one master or another, Stalin or something less grim, if no less miserable.

In Cunliffe's book, Lenin's optimism shines through with the same intensity described by Eugene Debs, the greatest American Marxist, in recounting his own conversion to socialism: "It was the day of days for me. I remember it well. It was like passing from midnight darkness to the noontide light of day. It came almost like a flash and found me ready. It must have been in such a flash that great, seething, throbbing Russia, prepared by centuries of slavery and tears and martyrdom, was transformed from a dark continent to a land of living light."

Cunliffe's book demonstrates that these dark times nonetheless remain an age of Enlightenment. This work will instill hope in the aching heart of anyone nostalgic for the dream of an emancipated humanity. It vindicates Lenin's own optimistic reflection on the likely failure of his revolution toward the end of his life:

"[W]e have not finished building even the foundations of socialist economy and the hostile powers of moribund capitalism can still deprive us of that. We must clearly appreciate this and frankly admit it; for there is nothing more dangerous than illusions (and vertigo, particularly at high altitudes). And there is absolutely nothing terrible, nothing that should give legitimate grounds for the slightest despondency, in admitting this bitter truth; for we have always urged and reiterated the elementary truth of Marxism—that the joint efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are needed for the victory of socialism. We are still alone and in a backward country, a country that was ruined more than others, but we have accomplished a great deal. More than that—we have preserved intact the army of the revolutionary proletarian forces; we have preserved its manoeuvring ability; we have kept clear heads and can soberly calculate where, when and how far to retreat (in order to leap further forward); where, when and how to set to work to alter what has remained unfinished. Those Communists are doomed who imagine that it is possible to finish such an epoch-making undertaking as completing the foundations of socialist economy (particularly in a small-peasant country) without making mistakes, without retreats, without numerous alterations to what is unfinished or wrongly done. Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility “to begin from the beginning “ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish)."


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