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One Hundred Years that Shook the World
A hundred years since the Russian Revolution that was supposed to have swept capitalism away, global capitalism remains intact and unchallenged. The USSR, that state founded by the Russian Revolution, lies on the ash heap of history. The defeat of the Russian Revolution has put paid to hopes of revolutionary social transformation through the seizure of state power. It has put paid to dreams of a radically better world in which social divisions have been eliminated and all oppression abolished. Its defeat has exposed the futility of humanity seeking to remould society and consciously shape its own destiny.
Yet bizarrely the epic triumph of capitalism has left us with only a limited appreciation of its many benefits and achievements. The marvels of mass consumption are routinely reviled as so much crass materialism. Economic growth and industrialization is seen as polarizing and disruptive of nature. The wondrous synergy of global urbanization is seen as the march of slums and squalor or alternatively, as the extension of suburban existential turpitude. The endless miracles of industrialized agriculture are seen as poisonous and destructive, while continual improvements in communication are seen as alienating and intrusive. The mass migration resulting from improved means of transport is seen as deeply threatening to the wealthiest, most technologically advanced and open societies on the planet. We cower before the prospect of planetary catastrophe and ecological collapse. We are tormented by every new scientific discovery and the possibility of greater control that it engenders. We live in collective dread of the marvels of nuclear power and are morbidly consumed by the fantasy that our own creations might one day come to dominate us when robots take over and computers become self-aware. Given all this, one could be forgiven for wondering whether anything else was defeated with the defeat of the Russian Revolution.
Nostalgia for Futures Past
We also know that once upon a time, the future was supposed to have been better. At the height of the Cold War, people looked forward to a glittering era of peaceful international cooperation, limitless clean energy, populated lunar bases, mass space tourism, colonization of the Solar System, flying cars and robots as domestic servants – and of course, jet packs and hover boards. In the 1959 Kitchen Debate in Moscow, the then US vice president Richard Nixon sparred with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over which social system was capable of delivering not only the best rocket technology but also the best consumer devices. The duels of the Cold War were measured not only by numbers of tanks and missiles, but also by competition over scientific discovery, technical innovation, economic growth, educational advance, urban planning, architecture and even household gadgets – washing machines, toasters, juicers. The Apollo Moon landings, it has been claimed, were the greatest achievements of Soviet communism. If such intense rivalry with the USSR could yield such optimism and hope, should not a capitalist victory over communism have yielded more still? How was it that communism became less threatening, failing to rouse the capitalists to competition?
The states of the old Eastern bloc claimed many lies about themselves – that they were popular, that they were democratic and that they belonged to the people. Yet one lie they never tried to sustain – despite often being ruled by Communist political parties – was that they were communist societies. In his speech delivered to the 22nd Communist Party Congress in 1961, Khrushchev promised communism to the Soviet people by the 1980s. When it became clear that the sputtering Soviet economic engine would never deliver on that promise, Russia's communist leaders never went further than claiming to protect '"actually existing socialism" – a promise whose bad faith was already exposed by the qualifying sobriquet. If communism never happened, and if the hopes of the Russian Revolution fizzled out in Soviet Russia itself long before the Cold War ended, when and where was the Russian Revolution actually defeated? How did communism die?
Capitalist achievements are paltry compared to the scale of capitalist victory. This is so even leaving aside the delusions of no longer existing socialism and the techno-utopianism of the High Cold War. Thirty years since the triumph of liberalism over totalitarianism, and the freest states in the world have chosen to construct industrial scale apparatuses of mass surveillance that would have been the envy of the most efficient secret police of the grimmest People's Republic. Thirty years after the victory of the market over the command economies of the Eastern bloc and the global economy is still struggling to shake off one of its worst ever crises threatening to crumble into a long period of stagnation while global trade collapses and fragments.
Paradoxes abound: the single greatest world-historic achievement of capitalism since the collapse of the USSR – the industrialization of East Asia – has only been attained under the auspices of a ruthless authoritarian state ruled by a murderous Communist Party whose legitimacy is rooted in an autarkic, nationalist revolt against capitalist colonialism. The fate of global capitalism now rests on the ability of a Communist Party to successfully hold down the Chinese workers. As a result of capitalist expansion into Asia, the global production chain for our most advanced technical devices combines astonishing levels of automated production and intellectual achievement with the most primitive forms of resource extraction, the cruellest forms of sweatshop labour and squandering of human potential. Should not the victory of capitalist freedoms over communist totalitarianism have more to show for itself in the annals of human emancipation?
To help answer some of these questions and properly explain some of these historical paradoxes and quirks, I argue that we must ask not only what did happen but also what could have happened in the past. This book will go back to 1917 in order to reimagine the Russian Revolution and its results, the better to understand how we have ended up where we are today. Let us begin with a small thought experiment.
A Terrifying Suggestion
Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. Say that an interconnected series of natural disasters, exacerbated by technical failures to respond to them erodes popular belief in science. With science blamed for the crisis and scientists for their failure to respond to it, many scientists are persecuted, assassinated, imprisoned and exiled, while their associates, friends and families fall under suspicion and are targeted for repression. Scientific organizations and institutes are defunded, scientific associations broken up and disbanded. Laboratories are firebombed and closed down, astronomical observatories forsaken on mountaintops. Scientific installations are shuttered, deserted and eventually stripped for spare parts. Scientific institutes will be turned into mosques, eco-lodges and even churches. Laboratories will be transformed into popular museums where visitors are invited to gawp at the ruined instruments of cold, hard rationality and human hubris. Scientific texts are censored and banned in universities, scientists' theories are repressed and purged from teaching, school science teachers are fired from their jobs. Snapping under the pressure or simply swept away by events larger than themselves, many individual scientists renounce science itself as a modern heresy and become among the fiercest critics and persecutors of their former peers, and of science as a body of thought.
Given how deeply science is embedded in modern industrial and technological civilization, the drive to eliminate science would inevitably escalate and heave up all sorts of anachronistic institutions, practices and views in its wake as part of the process of stifling science. Let us further imagine then, that spiralling to greater depths of repression, the drive to counter-science generates Know-Nothing political movements specifically designed to make the process of repression more comprehensive and methodical. Science comes to be seen no longer merely as a set of ideas, theories and practices that anyone can choose to believe and participate in, but as inhering in certain racial minorities and suspect groups that are targeted for systematic mass murder by the Know-Nothings. Know-Nothing dictatorships spread throughout the world, launching invasions to wipe out science in neighbouring states.
Caught up in the maelstrom, science itself begins to fission as scientists and their supporters and allies struggle to respond to these calamities and recuperate from the assaults. Science itself splinters into a range of opposed factions bristling with adjectives embodying their differential responses to the crisis – New Science, Orthodox Science, True Science, Actually Existing Science, Traditional Science and so on. Each group claims to realize the promise of modern science but some of them disguise ever more insidious and murderous forms of counter-science in their attempt to impose monolithic orthodoxy as to what science is and is not. Scientific progress and theoretical development is retarded even further.
After this process has burnt itself out, after the Know-Nothings no longer serve any purpose and have passed into history, and after the internecine science wars have exhausted themselves, science itself is dead. Isolated scientific breakthroughs occur and technological innovation staggers along as in the pre-scientific era, but it remains haphazard, fragmented and poorly understood and theorized, if at all. The eradication of science means that what is left are ruins of scientific devices and laboratories. Knowledge is fragmented, ideas are torn out of theoretical context, and concepts are not only not properly understood but also no longer have any meaningful correspondence to a society that has regressed to a post-scientific era. At a certain point, a new discipline of '"post-science" and "critical science" emerges and even becomes fashionable in certain universities. Here people earnestly discuss Einstein's theory of general relativity alongside alchemical theories of transubstantiation. One theory is as good as the other: neither has any bearing on the natural world because the social world is not configured to incorporate, arbitrate between or advance and institutionalize scientific theory ...
Actually Existing Dystopia
This hypothetical dystopia is, of course, the actually existing social and political world of the twentieth century. Today, people still shrilly denounce "socialism" while others struggle to "reclaim" socialism or insist on their direct inheritance and continuity with the socialist struggles of the past. People still use the words "class", "capitalism", "capital", "working class", "justice", "equality", "oppression", "revolution" and so on, in varying registers and with different polarities but without any real sense of what they mean or stand for. The place occupied by "science" in our earlier hypothetical world is – or rather was – occupied by "scientific socialism" in the actual world. This was the name that German revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels chose to describe their ideas. Scientific socialism was the only coherent doctrine of social change that had mass support while seeking to surpass capitalism and build on its achievements. Scientific socialism was – and remains – the only doctrine of post-capitalism that is based on secular modernity, on expanding and deepening the application of science, on accelerating the pace of technological change, on drastically enhancing the rate of economic growth and expansion. It was and remains the only doctrine to combine the ideal of subjugating nature to human will and subjugating the course of human history to human control by abolishing economic exploitation, social hierarchy and by expanding the realm of human self-government through deepening political participation.
Yet if revolutionary communism remains dangerous utopianism or merely idle speculation, we can say with greater certainty that the twentieth century was genuinely dystopian. It is not difficult to see the analogue for the hypothetical wave of counter-science repression sketched out above in our own near past. The actual historical world of the twentieth century saw an unrelenting, rolling global campaign of repression sweep across every continent from the start of the twentieth century through to its bitter end in the 1980s. Working class parties and labour organizations were variously shattered and broken through the use of courts, every conceivable type of police force – regular, secret and private – state repression, assassination and exile and even the use of military force against miners, the unemployed, railway workers, factory workers, dockers, hunger marchers, landless labourers and others. Workers' parties were banned, their leaders imprisoned and their followers persecuted – oftentimes alongside friends, families, allies and associates of every stripe. Civil rights were abused and rescinded, presses and media organizations censored, banned and burned down, individuals blacklisted, fired from their jobs and purged from their professional and industrial associations and unions. All this was only in the richest and freest states of the North Atlantic world. Elsewhere mass murder in the midst of both international and civil war could be the instrument of choice. The Jews of Eastern Europe, the ethnic Chinese of South East Asia, the indigenous peasants of Central America were seen as living physical embodiments of communism that necessitated physical excision from the body of society through programmes of mass extermination.
So fierce was the need to escalate this spiral of oppression that it even became necessary to recreate those very structures of authority, hierarchy and tradition that liberals had once sought to liquidate. Institutions such as the Church, absolutist monarchies, empires, landed interests and latifundism, racial subjugation and women's repression all had to be recreated. Once set upon, such an enormous and violent task of repression could not be contained nor limited. Unsurprisingly it spilled over from anticommunism into an all-out assault on the achievements of modernity itself in which communism was rooted. This required dispersing the very notion of a common humanity without which ideas of democracy, equality and freedom are meaningless – a feat accomplished through notions of racial hierarchy and cultural segmentation. After all, the only coherence to the absurd morass of fascist ideologies and movements that swept throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas was the violent and authoritarian anti-communism at their core.
All this is without even treating of the efforts to suppress revolution in the name of socialism itself. Here there was not only the grotesque show trials of Russia's revolutionary leadership in the 1930s, but also the indiscriminate purges that annihilated an entire generation of socialist political leaders and organizers throughout Europe via Stalin's usurpation of the Comintern, the international revolutionary organization established in 1919. In his remembrance of the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell recalls that in revolutionary Barcelona in 1936 it was more dangerous to appear dressed as a worker than as a member of the middle classes, as Stalin's death squads patrolled the city in a murderous rampage against left wing dissent.
The only way to properly contextualise and understand this tangled skein of violent struggle, political oppression and social retardation is through locating it in the dialectic of revolution and counter-revolution at the global level. It is then that we can bring into focus the colossal scale of the violence, reaction and oppression that was necessary to arrest social evolution and progress. In that process the social and political basis for progress was destroyed – oftentimes literally, in mass murder. Across the world, those social forces and political movements who had the incentive and will to overcome established hierarchies of race, class and gender and inherited privilege, and to liquidate traditional structures of oppression and control, were variously destroyed, mangled, contained or diverted. The result is worse than a world without science, for what we are left with is an alienated world that is incapable of reconciling itself to science and unlocking the still untapped potential of science to reshape society. Progress existed before science – how else could the Scientific Revolution ever have come about? – and now science has been condemned to outlive social and political progress. What this means is that we live in the aftermath of dystopia. The mid-twentieth century was the catastrophic nadir of human history and we stand on the other side, even though it remains in living memory.
Excerpted from "Lenin Lives!"
Copyright © 2016 Philip Cunliffe.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: One Hundred Years that Shook the World, 1,
Chapter Two: Possible Worlds: Socialism or Barbarism, 24,
Chapter Three: The Best Possible World: Global Socialism, 58,
Chapter Four: Lives in the Best Possible World, 103,
Epilogue: Reflections on the Worst Possible World: Our World, 130,