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The Bolshevik Century, by Guy Rundle

The October revolution in the twentieth-century political imagination

When 1 January came round this year and, through bleary hangover, 2017 was glimpsed, I cannot have been the only person on the Left—still, however complicatedly—to have expressed a wishful prayer that we could skip the whole year and move on to 2018. Looming at the end of the year was the centenary of the Event, the October revolution in Russia, when, after months of chaos and planning, in a few frenzied days the Maximalist (Bolshevik) Party seized power in St Petersburg, and then across the Russian empire. Vladimir Lenin, the party’s founder, would soon change its name to the Communist Party, abolish the country’s multi-party constituent assembly, create a political dictatorship to implement full state socialism, and run a society with various degrees of freedom, violence and possibility, until monolithic rule was imposed by Stalin in the late 1920s.

Secured in power after a brutal civil war, the party would establish an international organisation, the Comintern, which would spread revolution and political organisation to every corner of a world dominated by European and US imperialism. Communism as a movement would triumph in China and Asia, push Europe and the United States leftward into social democracy, fight brutal domination toe to toe in South America. In the post–Second World War years it would provide much of the seeding and backbone for anti-racist, civil rights struggles, urban politics and other struggles. Its dissidents, departing from the 1950s onwards, would form the Trotskyist Left and New Left, which would transform everyday life in the West and be a major source of the second-wave feminist and gay liberation/LGBTI movements, green politics and much more. From 1917 to the mid-1950s, the Bolshevik/Leninist model would dominate radical left thinking; from the 1950s into the 1980s, critical opposition to it would—and if older readers wonder how long this primer is going to continue, they can see the dilemma. By now, no one under forty-five has much of a memory of the USSR as a living political entity, or of a world in which capitalism was confronted by a mass ‘other’, an alternative modernity, however unattractive. In the last decade, communism has come back into radical left discourse and imagination, but as a somewhat mystical entity, something from which there has been a breach.

For four generations of radical leftists, October was the originary event, and its history—from Lenin’s formation of a Bolshevik faction in 1900, through crisis and redefinition, the great socialist split of the First World War, to October, the imposition of dictatorship, the extraordinary transformations of social possibility, the struggle of different left and right factions within, to the shutdown of Stalinism and the rise of other possible models in China, Cuba, Yugoslavia—was living, and ceaselessly worked over, the debates of Lenin and the Left Opposition, the soviets versus the Party, being instantiated in this food co-op or that residents group across the Western world.

From the 1960s onwards, the Western radical Left had to deal with another challenge: the steadily flowing, and then torrenting evidence that communism under Stalin had been not merely violently repressive but murderous and systemic on a scale that defied the imagination; that though its ends were not radically evil, as were those of Nazism, it had created a system of routinised lethality, sustained for decades; and though capitalist imperialism’s death toll had certainly not been any less, nor its pious Christianism lacking in hypocrisy, it had not fetishised the administration of capricious murder as an alleged expression of love of humanity in a form of grotesque political kitsch. In the 1970s,Cultural Revolution era, China would provide an accelerated reprise; when the horrors of Khmer Rouge Kampuchea were revealed in 1978–79, the last flame of October, as an event with which one had direct continuity, would flicker and die for all but the most delusional or casuistical souls. These final refutations occurred at the same time as efforts to create a genuine democratic socialism—in the United Kingdom, Sweden and elsewhere—ran into grief, from both the collapse of post-war Keynesian capitalism, structural problems in the idea itself, and deeper cultural–social shifts arising from new technologies, media and consumption. In the West, the late 1970s were a vacuum marked by wilful nihilism, either lethal—the red brigades, red terror­—or carnivalesque, such as English punk. Western European communist parties became Euro-communist, which is to say social democratic, of a leftish type; Leninist parties became the butt of jokes; and the Trotskyist parties, substantial in the 1970s, split, like Protestants or amoeba, into dozens of groupuscules. The more amorphous New Left had begun a slow transformation after the failure of its own October, the Paris uprising of May 1968 (whose half-century next year will be another retro-drag event), with much of its content being drawn into a new consumerist world focused on the self, separated from collective life—the ‘me’ decade. The New Left’s deeper structure—the postulation that human existence had a character of depth to it, an idea of life drawing on Marxism, psychoanalysis and existentialism—was undermined by the rendering of its affects via the market. This, combined with the political failure of the radical Left and the rise of linguistic and structural theory, created the period of postmodernism, whose high-cultural expression was the methodological nihilist approaches of writers like Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard and, in mass culture, one of obsessive pastiche of earlier pop-cultural eras, suggesting that history had ceased to move in a forward direction, and, indeed, never had.

By the 1980s, China had retained one-party rule but departed from the Maoist (and not particularly Marxist) formula of commune and cultural revolution. Arguably, its turn to guided capitalism represented a revival of a more determinist Marxism, but it didn’t seem so at the time. However, it did permit the Communist Party to retain power while drawing on the new media and communications technology that were becoming essential to capitalism. The sclerocracy of the USSR did not permit even the possibility of such a transition until a young Politburo member, Mikhail Gorbachev, rose to power and attempted to create a semi-open, liberalised public sphere combined with state socialism. But the new glasnost—openness—was used to question state socialism, and the entire nature of the Communist bloc, and over a few years from 1987 the whole thing came apart. In 1991, after a farcical military coup, the USSR simply winked out of existence, an event that is still as stunning in the memory as it was at the time. Communism was what the twentieth century had been, whether one was in the forces for or against it.

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The standard thumbnail political narrative of the October revolution is this: by 1900, the European socialist movement was largely Marxist but had adopted a deterministic position, which argued that little was possible until capitalism had reached a crisis point. The task until then was to build and stabilise a party ready to take power. Many were reconsidering the notion of armed insurrection, as had occurred in 1848 or 1870. In his last writings in the 1890s, Engels had considered the heightened military powers of the modern state and the simultaneous burgeoning of capital’s contradictions, and concluded that capitalism might reach a point where power was simply ‘handed over’ to the socialist movement. The SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) intellectual Eduard Bernstein went further, arguing for ‘evolutionary’ socialism, in which revolution, much less full communism, was simply an ideal endpoint to a steady socialist transformation.

For Russian Marxists, such fully legal and open tactics were not possible. The Russian (Marxist) social democratic party was a recent development, succeeding groups such as the populist Narodniki party, willing to use political terror to break a repressive tsarist regime, in pursuit of a mystical, pastoral Russia of rural equality. Yet while they had to organise clandestinely, they still accepted the orthodox parameters of Marxism—that their role was to assist in the creation of a bourgeois revolution, to create conditions for the expansion of capitalism, and the creation of a proletariat. When the Bolshevik faction emerged, based on a detailed conception Lenin worked out in Siberian exile in the late 1890s, its dispute with the larger Menshevik faction was over strategy and tactics, not ends. The party should be a closed group of professional revolutionaries, its organisational form present in everyday conduct, creating an organisation capable of taking power and then wielding it. Vigorous internal debate over theory, policy and strategy would lead to a position that would hence become that of the group as a whole. Over two decades such an approach held the party together, and allowed it to work effectively. In the chaos at the end of the First World War, the approach was vindicated as the Bolsheviks took power, while their critics—for example, the German Spartakist group led by Rosa Luxemburg—failed, in part because of their failure to adopt a Bolshevik approach of quasi-military discipline. Until late in the day—1916—the Bolsheviks had maintained a ‘stagist’ policy that limited their conception of their role in what by now seemed an inevitable collapse of tsarist power in Russia. Only in that year did Lenin adopt a variant of an idea—‘permanent revolution’—that the non-factional Marxists Alexander Helphand-Parvus (of whom we will hear more) and Leon Trotsky had developed from some fragmentary remarks by Marx. Arriving at Petrograd’s (St Petersburg’s) Finland railway station after a journey through enemy Germany in a special ‘sealed’ train, Lenin proclaimed to the local Bolshevik welcoming committee that the aim was to seize power, take Russia out of the war, spark revolution in Europe and build the socialist order.

Taken as hopelessly out of touch, if not deranged, by the party of which he was ostensibly leader, he spent months struggling to regain authority and to push for an uprising (and equally, to forestall a premature one, in July). His approach, contrary to that of his party, had, it was said, been fuelled by the study of Hegel in Zurich in 1916, while he was cooling his heels, and the sudden understanding that all Marxist theorising from the 1880s onwards had been linear and positivist rather than seeing political reality as subject to sudden reversal, transformation and negation, which presented outsize possibilities for those with a ‘correct’ understanding. Through 1917 his thought took off further. A Russian revolution would not merely be a catalyst for European revolution but also a chance to move immediately to building socialist forms; his short book The State and Revolution proposed that socialism would be achieved in a matter of months, not years; that rational state economic forms would be created prior to their withering away altogether; and that law and justice would require no courts or procedures, simply the people (‘if a man assaults a woman, people will simply interpose themselves between them’).

The next decade of Bolshevik rule, until full Stalinism dawned around 1930, would be a series of improvisations, moving from Left to Right and back again, all with the clear aim in mind of creating and representing a workers’ socialist state as a product of a workers’ movement.

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That is one way of telling it, and, with variations, has been both the official story and the dissenting one within the revolutionary tradition of the last century. It is worth noting that this is the sort of ‘history from above’ history of October that increasing numbers of historians have criticised, arguing that the excessive focus on the exile leadership of the Bolsheviks, and other Russian parties, ignored the autonomous existence of the parties within Russia, which often pursued policies and strategies at variance with exile directives and squabbles, responding to the dynamic working-class resistance that began to rise in Russia’s major cities from 1915 onwards, as military setbacks undermined the tsarist regime. Over recent decades, this has become a discourse attacking Bolshevism from the Left, seeing it as an instantly dictatorial movement crushing all trace of workers’ self-organisation, often with state terror.

This is duly noted, but this essay concerns the role of the October revolution in the twentieth-century political imagination, and, for the greater part of it, this involved the invoking of the master narrative: the victory of the most uncompromising party, in utterly unpromising circumstances, and by means of ‘correct’ theorising of the situation. The October revolution thus became a parable of the powers of the materialist intellect, guided by, but innovating Marxism, interpreting the world in order to change it.

But there’s another way of telling it that would emphasise something else, and give a greater clue to the contradictions we have lived through, and which are present for many of us today. That would be an argument that the Bolshevik faction, although it did not become a party until well into the First World War, had become not merely a separate entity from the main Russian party but a unique element in European politics, an unduplicatable mix of radical European thinking and Russian mystical traditions, a party whose predicament—trapped in the backwards context of Russia—had prompted a leaping forward, an abandonment of much that went by the name of materialist Marxism. The roots of this split, and of the paradoxes of left politics through the twentieth century, stem from the failure of the revolution in 1905, and the European cultural conditions pertaining after that time.

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The revolution of 1905, obscured today, had been one of the most extraordinary events of European history. From the bloody suppression of a supplicant protest, the petitioning of the tsar for better working conditions, St Petersburg had come apart, and the workers had formed ‘soviets’. The city ran on dual power, a constituent assembly and a soviet, while across Russia tsarism remained in place. Months passed in a stalemate while the city became a laboratory of democracy, free speech, and cultural and artistic experimentation. It was here that Trotsky and Helphand-Parvus developed the idea that a workers’ party could stage a revolt and take power in its own name (and, by the initial conception, manage ‘state capitalism’ to a socialist transition). When the revolution was suppressed, the leaders exiled to Siberia, and a powerless parliament, the Duma, set up, dividing the movement as to how to proceed, a period of decline ensued. The failure of the revolt and of the provisional regime to gain support and spark revolution appeared to be yet more evidence of what could not be fully admitted: that the Marxist schema of working-class revolution could not be simply applied. In arguing this out, Russian Marxism, already fractious, became utterly divided, demoralised and demobilised.

This was even, or especially true of the Bolshevik Party, which came close to collapse. The group’s networks in Russia were small and had been crushed; the group was becoming top-heavy with exiles, especially those of an intellectual cast. Lenin struggled to maintain leadership and to maintain a spirit of preparing for imminent revolution, as the radical fires of the small Russian urban working class cooled, and some began to despair at the mechanistic nature of Marxist theory. Effectively, the party split in two. One of the factions, the Vperod group, would be led by Alexander Bogdanov, a polymath, whose attachment to anything resembling mundane Marxism floated free. Bogdanov, a doctor whose researches played a role in the development of blood transfusion, pioneered the idea of transplants (he would experiment by trying to swap dogs’ heads between living bodies); his novel Red Star, about a communist civilisation on Mars, inaugurated a vast genre of speculative science fiction—and the idea that such revolutionary movements should rise to wild dreaming of possibilities. Convinced that materialist proposals could never summon revolution, he argued for ‘God-building’: the creation of a secular cult of the human that would inspire through transcendence. Established on the isle of Capri, he ran a party training school with the writer Maxim Gorky. Others of similar bent were drawn to the party, such as the future Bolshevik minister of culture Anatoly Lunacharksy. Elsewhere, other already veteran activists such as Alexandra Kollontai began to think more radically about social change and the abolition of traditional gender roles. The Capri school drew on all this and much more.

To a degree this was inevitable. The 1905 failure had coincided with shifts in European culture away from nineteenth-century rationalism. The spread of inventions arising in the previous two decades—telephony, automobiles, cinema, audio recording, reinforced-concrete buildings, oil-powered ships, electricity, powered flight—had decisively changed both the structures of capitalism and the character of everyday urban life. Complementary transformations in thought also occurred. New philosophical theories of materialism, such as those of Ernst Mach, were questioning the nature of matter; Albert Einstein’s 1905 papers on relativity and Max Planck’s theory of energy as ‘quanta’ were filtering out from science; the vitalist philosophies of Henri Bergson and others, and the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud were positing life forces beyond the material. The science fiction and non-fiction of Jules Verne, HG Wells and others expressed the new dreams of the era—or old dreams given a new and supercharged form—of a radical human transcendence of given conditions of both external nature and the human body and self. Dominating the era for intellectuals, as Pankesh Mishra notes in his recent book The Age of Anger, was the rise and rise of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose promotion of the will as a constituting power could be drawn on by racialist imperialists, Marxist revolutionaries and colonised nationalists alike. The Vperod group/Capri school were drawing on all this—but also on Russian intellectual traditions unknown to many Europeans. By far the strangest addition to the increasingly distinctive Russian radical thought, as noted by John Gray, was an enthusiasm for ‘biocosmism’, a batty mix of Hegel, Russian orthodox mysticism and vitalism, created by the Russian mystic philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, which argued for the total humanisation of the natural universe. Fedorov postulated not only the exploration and conquest of space but the scientific resurrection of the dead. Death itself would yield to the total command of the human life force.

Through years of factional and intellectual struggle, the official histories have it, Lenin—running what sounds like a far less fun Bolshevik training school just outside of Paris—defeated the Vperod group and the Capri school, and Bogdanov departed the party. But the spirit that had come in with him and others was folded in—a new synthesis. From this point on, the Bolsheviks would be a focus for a politics that was not merely one of class revolution but one of radical humanism, and one that would be increasingly bound up with leaping advances in technology as a means of the realisation of that. Marx had never fleshed out his idea of communism, but in a world where machines did not yet dominate it had retained a pastoral air. By the 1910s, notions that human liberation would be achieved by entering a realm of vast cities, automated procedures and radical changes to human existence were on the agenda. Trotsky, not yet a Bolshevik, but with a similar attraction to a distinctively Russian form of radical thought, put it famously:

Man will learn to shift rivers and mountains, to build peoples palaces on the heights of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the ocean…at last man will begin in earnest to harmonise his own being. He will aim at bringing higher precision, purposefulness, economy and consequently beauty into the movements of his own body…to subordinate them to control by reason and will…in this way he will lift himself to new eminence, grow into a superior biological and social type—into the Superman if you like…the average man will rise to the stature of Aristotle, Goethe, Marx. And above these peaks new peaks will rise.

When power was finally, seemingly impossibly, won in Petrograd and Moscow and spreading outwards, the new Bolshevik regime became a magnet for radical possibility. The immediate structural economic policy of the new regime—‘war communism’, direct requisition without the use of money—went beyond the immediate needs of military emergency and sought to introduce instant categorical change. It was proposed to keep war relations with the Germans in a state ‘between war and peace’ in the hope that Europe would rise up in revolution; when this failed, and after the Civil War had been won, the nascent USSR invaded Poland, hoping to extend the revolution militarily. In social policy, immediate reforms along gender and other lines—divorce, legal equalisation of women, legal abortion—were supplemented with proposals to abolish the family and raise children in communal dormitories. Modernist, functionalist architecture was championed; Le Corbusieresque proposals for the demolition of vast swaths of the major cities were planned; artists in exile flooded back in to create constructivist and ‘proletkult’ movements, revolutionising design and the use of posters, cinema and other new media, as well as schools of systematic theoretical criticism in literature and the visual arts. Radically contradictory ideas of what this acceleration would involve co-existed, the constructivists’ notion of freeing the Promethean artist in everyone and the Rousseauian belief in a spontaneous human emerging from children’s dormitories holding sway at the same time as the Taylorist cult, in which factory management was extended to everyday life and members of the League of Time kept records of every minute spent, and their leader, senior labour innovator Sergei Gastev, proposed the abolition of personal names to create a proletarian ‘hive mind’. This was all in addition to the more mundane, but more significant roll-out of mass programs of public health, education and literacy.

From 1920 on, as the USSR was consolidated, much of this techno- and social-accelerationism would find itself in alliance with the Workers and then Left Opposition faction of the party, which also advocated nested, ground-up workers’ control of industrial production and the rationalisation of agriculture into larger farms. This was set against a shift to the centre by the leadership, and the renewal of a mixed economy with the launch of the New Economic Policy (NEP), essentially an acceptance by Lenin and others that a more conventionally Marxist process of capitalist development and transition in a peripheral country was the only possible route. It was intended as a stopgap, but Lenin—whose final hope for a radical transition had been vested in the notion that ‘electrification plus the Soviets equals communism’—became increasingly impressed with the results, and announced it would continue for ‘decades’. Together with foreign capitalists, such as oil tycoon Armand Hammer, the USSR established concession areas and free trade zones. The political history is drearily familiar: the Left Opposition was crushed by Stalin after Lenin’s death, followed by the Right, after which the NEP was shut down, and the Left Opposition’s program of collectivisation and mass planned industrial development was instituted under a system of vast totalitarian state terror. Simultaneously, however, Stalin killed the Left’s social and cultural programs, returning family life to the centre of Soviet ideology and replacing modernism with enforced traditional aesthetics. The image of communism became the kitsch celebration of heavy industry and monolithic political control. The NEP period, the few years when the USSR was authoritarian—and state violence substantial—yet also vibrant, rapidly growing, making vast strides in social conditions and scientific research, simply disappeared, with the exception of the modernist artistic legacy. The embalming and entombment of Lenin in Red Square, and the subsequent engineered personality cult of Stalin, were essentially the final acts of the ‘God building’ that had begun in the summer evenings of Capri.

When the Soviet space-exploration program began as a development on from military missile development, its head, Sergei Korolev, said that what had inspired him was the various Bolshevik/Biocosmist fusions floating around in the years 1918–20. Bolshevism, in the sense that I am speaking of it here, defined communism as a movement, and was the pulse that lay beneath Stalinism. Its contradictory character was made visible in the manner in which oppositional movements could claim it as a heritage, both those seeking to return to transcend capitalism right now—through a return to an unalienated nature—and those seeking to create a techno-utopia. To define it simply as one form of Marxism because of the claims it made as to heritage is to misunderstand it, and the century we have lived through, completely. It was a movement that, through political failure, became a focus of the obsessions and religious humanisms of the early twentieth century, and, finding itself with the resources of a vast nation at its disposal, projected them into the world. There was not the slightest historical necessity for it to occur as it did; indeed it is one of the more unusual possible outcomes of the ensemble of events that existed at the time of its founding.

As the sidebar makes clear, the event was so saturated with intrigue, staging and construction that in some ways it is more in the character of a spectacle, in the Situationist sense, than the event of intrinsic depth it is often supposed to be. But even after the last real potential of the movement had died—the pursuit of a ‘cybernetic communism’ under Nikita Khrushchev, using mainframe computers to defeat the problems of central planning, recounted in Francis Spufford’s non-fiction novel Red Plenty—one might say that the Bolshevik spirit had been passed on to the world. Twelve years after the Sputnik program, humanity landed on the moon; a half-century after Bogdanov’s experimentations, Christiaan Barnard inaugurated the era of organ transplantation, and a radically revised notion of the human person. The very last Soviet shot at living up to the Bolshevik project occurred in the Brezhnev period, with the exploration of near-zero-cost energy technologies, including the creation of giant, gossamer-thin ‘space sails’ hundreds of kilometres wide, designed to catch ‘solar wind’ energy. This technology is currently being explored as part of a design for feasible interstellar travel—the proposal that thousands of microships, which double as self-assembling robots, could travel at 0.2c, reaching the nearest stars in twenty years. The Bolshevik century was the real thing that came from a revolutionary conspectus in some sense imaginary in nature. Is it fanciful, or overstating the facts, to attribute these separate developments as arising from the irruption of Bolshevism at the start of a century whose political form it unquestionably dictated? Bolshevism arose some way into the ‘Promethean’ era of modernity, and other movements were not short of such brio, nor the ruthlessness it demanded. From the lethal tunnelworks of Isambard Kingdom Brunel to the imperialism unbounded of Cecil Rhodes—who dreamt of colonising the moon—to the technoworship of the Futurists, and its influence on Italian fascism and Nazism, to Henry Ford’s creation of model cities in the Brazilian jungle, there has been no shortage of such common-or-garden deep-seated historical urges. It is arguable, however, that all these grand projections contained within them a limiting particularity: the advancement of a particular nationality or race, or of a modest futurity admixed with tradition (the fairly ‘modest’, if brutal, aims of Italian fascism, for example), or, with Ford, the success of a middle-class market capitalism whose cultural and social frameworks would be substantially unchanged.* It was Bolshevism, from after 1905 to the mid-1920s, that developed a universal form of this historical urge, one transcending all categories. Created and recreated by political intellectuals who had theorised the necessity of the intellectual in supplying class consciousness to a working class bound within capitalist ideology, in conditions of near-total isolation from such a ‘target class’, it was free to become a movement for the permanent revolution of life itself. As scientists and intellectuals became bound up with the structures of political and economic power—especially after the Second World War—that ‘bolshevik’ version of total transformation was transmitted by both ideas and formal and informal connections. Politically, this heritage was in an anti-imperialism that escaped liberal notions of subordination to the West, and saw the ‘third world’ as a place where human freedom could leap forward; in the advanced countries one could see it transmitted through the leading figures of the Manhattan project, to cybernetics and networking, to the ARPAnet, the PC and the internet. Undoubtedly, much of this was forced on capitalism by Soviet competition; the USSR had turned a missile program into a space program, and forced the United States to take on an integrated national state form that was initially resisted from the Right (the so-called ‘Old Right’) before a countercultural Left began to question it. In the absence of an ‘other’ challenging capitalist form, it is clear that capitalism per se has lost that dynamic imagination; global capitalism, as a practice of actual capitalists, is now dominated by the anarchy of production, by the limiting demands of consumer desire, by financialisation, and by rent-seeking from implicitly post-capitalist innovation, by means of intellectual-property regimes. One example of this transmission might serve for many: among the students of the Marxist revolutionary (then very ex-revolutionary) James Burnham was the future Futurist Alvin Toffler, whose techno-optimistic Future Shock served as an inspiration for the countercultural groups creating networking and the PC in California in the 1970s. Toffler was also a teacher of Newt Gingrich, who began his career as a social-systems academic, and whose 1994 ‘Contract With America’ manifesto re-envisioned Americanism as bound up with techno-acceleration. The ‘Contract With America’ in no way derived from republican, i.e. founding, nations of the United States, which saw free citizenship as somehow bound up with a more modest social form. It was an infusion of the radical humanist—in this essay, Bolshevik—ideal (compare Ron Paul’s genuinely libertarian idea for a US Right; accelerationism is absent; the program favours mass deflation and asset liquidation as a corrective). In 2012, running for nomination, Gingrich promised that the United States would return to the moon, and—to mounting excitement from the audience—colonise it with ‘sixty thousand people’, at which point, Gingrich beamed, ‘it could apply for US statehood’. The audience deflated; Gingrich never understood why. Tragedy to farce, red star to red-white-and-blue satellite, in the Bolshevik century.

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The romance of October died for the first time, in the West, with the discrediting of Stalinism, and the rise of the New Left and the social movements in the 1960s. It died ‘politically’, in any case. As the Soviet kitsch of hydroelectric dams and tractor battalions retreated to the dusty shelves of the International bookshops and the theological debates of the more hidebound Trotskyist groups, it was the aesthetic, cultural and ‘cosmic’ dimension of the event that came to the fore. October became a revolution in thought, in art and theory practice, flowing into the critique of ideological production in an image-saturated post-war society. ‘Owing to bad weather, the German revolution happened in music’, satirist Kurt Tucholsky had remarked in the 1920s; from the 1960s to the 1980s, the October moment was linked to cultural disruption, forms of intervention—montage and derealist cinema, for example—that interrupted the manufacture of consenting consciousness. This dovetailed easily with the rejection of ‘grand narratives’ by postmodernists and poststructuralists; deconstructing the ever-growing array of images and positivist thinking was a form of October, at least for groups in Paris, Berlin and New York, whose house journal of such Octobers was named October. Such a self-conception made certain bizarre conjuctions seem obvious: the enthusiasm of poststructuralist Parisian intellectuals around Tel Quel magazine for China’s cultural revolution, for example. What attracted in part was Marxism-Leninism’s double game: Marxism, denying that it had an ethical perspective, was nevertheless saturated with a Judeo-Christian rising of the oppressed; Leninism, with its notion that the working class—often parochial, conservative, nationalist and piecemeal in their aims—had to be supplied with revolutionary working-class qualities from outside, meant that the material politics of post-war social democracy could be ignored altogether. It was a period, peaking in the 1980s, in which much of the Bolshevist utopianism, in cinema, art and literature, was so over-quoted as to become a sort of meta-kitsch, a kitsch attempt to rupture the use of kitsch as an ideological ‘sealant’ in popular culture.

By the 1990s, it was already waning, as it proved increasingly unsatisfying, and as the final collapse of the USSR and the full extension of neoliberal globalisation—capitalism without an ‘other’—came roaring into the centre of life. When the global anti-capitalist movement sprang to life from 1996 onwards—after about a decade during which the very word ‘capitalist’ was almost unuttered in mainstream debate—it retained the New Left critique of hierarchical organisation and ‘democratic centralism’ (even though small Trotskyist groups could claim an outsize role in making them happen, due, in large part, to the greater efficiency of action made possible by highly organised party structures). Indeed, sections of it went further, adopting poststructuralist critiques to argue that any statement of positive aims was not merely tactically problematic (because of the risk of splits) but was itself dictatorial. The movement arced, crested and fell, and then re-arose, in similar terms, as Occupy in the first half of the 2010s. Each time there was the same after-effect, as the formlessness, utopian hopes, and meagre—or at least non-visible—achievements left people bitter and frustrated. In the 1970s, this had generated the modern ‘Trotskyist’/far-Left movement, as those wanting to do effective, radical politics willingly submitted to organisations that consciously rejected New Left critiques, and often made a fetish of political drudgery and obeisance. These too have waxed and waned, the most effective—the UK Socialist Workers Party—gutted by a scandal involving the cover-up of well-founded rape accusations against the party’s general secretary, the whole affair mishandled, simply by using The State and Revolution as a legal guide, and presuming that all ‘superstructural’ legal processes were ‘bourgeois’.

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However, a new appetite for communism, or for the idea of communism, has arisen—an honouring, though often in the breach, of Lenin and Leninism. ‘Communism’ and ‘communist’—terms that from the 1960s to the early 2000s could not be used as anything other than provocation, save by the Stalinist remnant—have become commonplace. Now there is full debate between groups such as the ‘ideal communists’—for whom communism is both a living level of free interaction and also an ideal historical aim—and ‘fully automated luxury communists’, a teasingly self-parodic label for those advocating full mass, massively scaled automation to dissolve human labour and the institutions that gain their legitimacy from it. Much of this has come from the work and intellectual activism of Slavoj Žižek, from the early 1990s onwards, in promoting the idea of Lenin and Leninism less as a particular strategy than as a manifestation of unitary political will, against the notion of difference and indeterminacy at the heart of poststructuralism and the first iteration of identity politics. Part of Žižek’s efforts have been in promoting the work of Alain Badiou, whose anti-‘linguistic turn’ return to metaphysics had never been shipped from France to the Anglosphere academy in the poststructuralist years. Badiou advances the notion of communism as the deep form of political philosophy, an expression of the radical equality associated with human being, and tied it to his metaphysics, which place a primacy on certain occurrences having a special character as ‘Events’ that brought into being the worlds around them, rather than their simply occurring within given contexts (to radically oversimplify it). In such a framework, the October revolution, the Leninist moment, and the most wild-ranging ideas associated with it, have become popular and motivating once again. The explicit political and theoretical formula is often zero; ‘communist’ has become a badge to wear to announce a certain style of being political. It may not even accept, or focus on, Marxist notions of the primacy of class so much as opposing renewed ideas of the primacy of difference upon which a now supercharged identity politics sits. It also counterposes itself against the revival of non-Leninist radical socialism practised by journals such as Jacobin or the ‘Momentum’ movement within the British Labour party.

But if explicit ‘communist’ movements are the narrow form of such a revival, there is a wider spirit abroad that also draws on the Bolshevik impulse, and the implicit notion that human liberation and self-realisation are fundamentally expressed by the transcendence of the given human condition. To call oneself a communist, to claim some sort of heritage from the Bolshevik moment, is to state a fundamental belief about ‘what is to be done’ in the broadest possible terms. To summon up the communist ideal now is to advance a certain type of audacity connected with the human condition, technology and transformation. It is to specifically and explicitly disregard any concerns, fears or deep-seated questions one might have, in our era, about the relationship between human beings and technology, and the sundering, or disregarding, of any category of ‘nature’ as a necessary element of life. Such an audacity issues from the new Unity thinkers summoned in the spirit of Leninism, many of whom have adopted ‘accelerationist’ and ‘transhumanist’ ideas about technology—that massive, indefinitely scaled-up tech should be ramrodded as a way of categorically smashing existing social relations—but it also issues from the poststructuralist/queer/cyborg side, which sees the theoretical and actual separation of humanity from any natural ground as a radical and emancipatory measure. The famous Santa Cruz conference on ‘left conservatism’ in 1998 set the tone; this was a gathering of poststructuralists who essentially treated any form of non-linguistic materialism as retrograde. The opening for the flyer is worth reproducing:

A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life: the specter of Left Conservatism. Within academia and without, in events such as the Sokal affair, in the anti-theory polemic, in…

The commitment to living theory, expressed in a language of dead cliché, simultaneously knowing wink, and reflex spasm.

Thus in our era, the Bolshevik spirit has lost much of its social dimension and become purely expressed in species accelerationism. The role of Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk is one such example: black-skivvied, austere, the model for the adult superhero movie Iron Man, Musk has used his initial successes in the rather mundane world of software products to pump vast resources into exploring superfast ground transport (the vacuum-charged hyperloop), accelerated energy development—as per megabatteries for renewable storage—and now space travel and the colonisation of Mars. The hyperloop between the Capri Bolsheviks and Silicon Valley closes, with a private citizen supplying the grand cause with which humanity could supposedly leap into the next century. Absent, however, is a parallel determination to end curable disease or remnant absolute poverty. Silicon Valley accelerationism is complemented by the radical politics of self as expressed in the more conventional radical Left: the celebration of hyper-individualism, of the network as a replacement for the community, of the use of robotic mass automation in everyday life, of ‘non-recreational’ mood- and cognition-altering pharmaceuticals, and of a deconstructed and auto-created self, especially as regards the relationship between gender and embodiment, and self-cyborgisation by implants, bio transformation and suchlike.

The Bolshevik impulse runs through all these possibilities, and no wonder; just as Bolshevism was the form revolutionary Marxism took for a certain group of the small sub-class of intellectuals—Russians in exile drawing on mystical and extreme Russian traditions from biocosmism to the revolutionary nihilism of Sergey Nechayev—so too the new communist audacity appeals to a subset of the humanities-intellectually-trained, now a global class of significant size. Marxism was a worldview created by two philosophy grad students in the beer gardens of German university towns, who projected the grad student’s life mode—unbounded interconnection via intellectual life, textual interpretation as the route to world transformation—onto multiple groups, synthesised as the working class, who shared only some of their priorities; if there are a lot of Marxists these days, it’s because there are a lot of grad students. The Bolshevik/communist orientation is that class expressing its politics in the form that most flatters its heroic self-conception, and connects to the spirit of the age. The combination of ultra-tech and self-transformation has its Bolshevik Left, and also its Right, a mash-up of Futurism, Ayn Rand, anarcho-capitalism, as expressed by a figure like the Trump-supporting PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel. But the differences between the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ of such a phenomenon is less important than the assumptions they share, and the light that casts on the original Bolshevism. It should be clear that Trotsky’s dream of superhumans begetting yet more superhumans is as anti-human as it is radical humanism, a humanity from which all that is human, all too human, has been excised: corporeality, fallibility, vulnerability, need, mutual dependence, finitude—the deep plight of human being that makes possible love, joy in nature, attachment, rich particularity, which is the ground of worthwhile human existence. It is the disdain for this that developed in Bolshevism, as its worship of the superhuman and of a supposedly imminent communism developed, that lies at the root of the ruthlessness that began as a strategy and became a fetish, soon after the seizure of power. Contemporary Leninolatry and Bolshevobsession has the same tenor as the strained urgency of characters in Chekhov, excluded by a system that will grant only a few of them power and purpose, and then on strict terms.

There are movements and groups around the world (and the several generations who founded and are drawn to this publication are one) whose politics were formed by a gradual separation from and eventual opposition to the Promethean, quantitative, accelerationist, radically neophiliac dimension of the Bolshevik project, while still honouring the historical determination to transform human possibility, in modernity, when the prospect of liberation from capricious, annihilating nature first became possible. Communism was an undoubted catastrophe for Russia, and for certain of its post–Second World War satellites. Whether the same can be said for China—for all the horrific violence and criminally lethal economic policy of the Mao era—remains to be seen. Comparison between China now, and a hybrid society like India, or one that remained in the capitalist circuit, such as Nigeria, shows no real competition: communist China has lifted more people from the domain of absolute poverty than any single project on earth. It is arguable that the tragedy of the century was that—even allowing for the violence and destruction that would have attended it—India and sub-Saharan Africa weren’t communised. One of this writer’s most striking memories is of seeing, on a bus trip through rural China, a large, modern building in an isolated small city bearing the legend ‘Hospital for Childhood Diarrhoea’, and seeing two more within the next two days. Chinese children don’t die of diarrhoea, en masse; a million African children do, this year, last year, next year, and beyond. Indeed, it is arguable that, without the creation of the Comintern, imperialism and global apartheid would have continued for decades beyond its post–Second World War death. Such arguments quickly become armchair counterfactuals. But it is important to foreground the radical contingency of the century, and to make visible the concomitant mass death and social tragedy that has occurred, in the post-war period, through the absence of an enforced modernisation that went under the name of ‘communism’.

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But even that shows the paradoxes we are dealing with, because while millions of Indians are still subject to the easily curable diseases that have been all but eradicated in China, in China there has occurred something of the catastrophe we identify in Bolshevik audacity: the planing flat of particular and given cultures, habits, social arrangements and grounded being, due to momentous environmental damage, and the destruction of town and small-city life, of rural practices and relations. India, by contrast, as Arundhati Roy has noted, forms a vast repository of cultures, life-ways and practices that have been left untouched because of the piecemeal and often ineffective nature of Indian modernisation, and which form the basis for genuinely postmodern development that does not involve the loss and ungrounding of all that has gone before.

That possibility—catastrophe—is one now present not in a ruthless and self-assured political strategy but in a similarly uncritical faith in technology as a form of liberation, and in the radically autonomous nature of the human subject. For those of us who emerge from radical traditions convinced that the prospect of catastrophe on a species level is now borne as much by those claiming to be on ‘the Left’ as on the Right, a fundamental, epochal assessment is required of where we stand, who we stand with, and what battles of ideas are most pressing. There are obvious prospects for catastrophe in the century or so ahead—accumulating climate change never arrested, because it proves impossible to overcome its nihilistic deniers; regional nuclear or biological warfare that falls short of extinction—that are stark and visible. Equally possible, less visible, and often celebrated by many on the Left, is the catastrophe of human self-transformation through technologies—of media, brain, body—that would so effectively ‘unground’ the species that there is a collapse of the capacity for meant or rich shared existence, at the same time as the spread of such technologies make it difficult for the collective reflective capacities of the species to grasp itself and plot a way out of such a ‘being trap’. Presumably, this is a possibility for any sort of species that achieves self-consciousness, and the capacity for self-development: that it can create for itself a sort of ‘living hell’ as a historical outcome of ungrounding.

In the combined aspiration to colonise space, and separate self from any form of given nature whatsoever, one sees the outlines of such an ungrounding. That suggests a rejection of certain inherited political self-definition that goes further than a critique and rejection of Bolshevism, or of Bolshevism’s ahuman dimension. It is one that prioritises traditions of thought that make visible and critique ‘ungrounding’, whether they be found on the Left, or, as they frequently are, in conservative and religious traditions. Much of what is labelled the Left is now the ideology of the rising/ruling class that will run a knowledge/information/culture economy—the once tiny intelligentsia now a class-in-itself and becoming a class-for-itself. Just as the bourgeois ideology of capitalism—means of accumulation substituted for social ends—bred a nihilism, expressed most recently as neoliberalism, so too the knowledge-class ideology of its power and right carries with it the nihilism of ungrounding. There is a point at which even the vestigial unity of an inherited politics cannot and should not be sustained, and former colleagues and comrades must be identified—in a respectful fashion, learning from the Bolshevik failure on this point—as the enemy, and those formerly seen as on the other side understood as potential partners in dialogue, for a politics of ground. A century after October, in the hangover from the celebrations, if we inherit nothing else, we should at least be heirs to a politics of courage and audacity.

Note: Aside from the standard sources, including the Arena heritage, several works are worth mentioning: Alex Butterworth, The World That Never Was; John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette; Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Cultural Front and other works; McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red.

Sidebar: Alexander Helphand-Parvus

‘Epitaph for a Living Friend’, Leon Trotsky titled his excoriating 1915 piece on the German-Russian figure Alexander Helphand-Parvus, a figure many will know, if they know him at all, as a go-between of Vladimir Lenin’s ‘sealed train’, and a notorious renegade of the European socialist movement. Drummed out of the movement in 1910, Helphand-Parvus has been drummed out of history. Thereby we misunderstand the nature of the century, and the degree to which the October Revolution—the modern Event sine qua non—may have had more of the simulacra about it than we wish to admit. Helphand-Parvus, by his own account, was a mover, a shaker, a man without whom such history might not have happened. And in that he may well have been correct.

Born in Odessa in 1867 and raised in Minsk, Helphand, son of a Jewish locksmith, studied economics in Switzerland, became a Marxist, and joined the German SDP (Social Democratic Party) in the 1880s. Under the pseudonym ‘Parvus’, he quickly became renowned as a foremost theorist and writer. Making important developments in global economic theory, he revived Marx’s notion that ‘war is the mother of revolution’, and predicted Russia’s disastrous 1904 war with Japan and the uprising that would follow. Running the largest-circulation paper during the 1905 revolution in St Petersburg, he developed the theory of ‘permanent revolution’. After the revolution’s failure (and his escape from Siberia), he became increasingly impatient with the German SDP’s determinist model of transition; inspired in part by Australia’s ‘harvester’ judgment, and the system that arose from it (Lenin’s ‘600 words’ on Australia, are a reply to Helphand-Parvus and Karl Kautsky), he developed a theory of ‘workers’ democracy’ in which socialist revolution would occur before the capitalist crisis, and then manage capitalism to a transition. This was scorned by the Bolsheviks but later adopted almost entirely in the ‘New Economic Programme’. Increasingly erratic, he was expelled for pocketing the royalties from a hit production he had staged of Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths; the royalties had been intended for the Russian party, but he used them to further plans to create a Europe-wide socialist news service (and to fund a fortnight in Venice with an actress; ‘I hope you had a good time’, Gorky remarked). In Istanbul he became an economics editor, an advisor to the ‘Young Turks’, and a shadowy go-between for the British Vickers corporation, Krupp and the German embassy. Brokering supplies for the Ottoman army, he became rich and influential. In 1914 he proposed to the German general staff that the coming war with Russia could be won by fomenting revolution in Russia through mass funds to socialist and nationalist parties, that a conference to reunite the Russian Marxists should be held, and that a ‘man named Lenin’ was the most effective agent of radical change. Helphand-Parvus’s intentions remained Marxist: Russian revolution would be followed by German revolution. To effect it, he played the German chauvinist to the hilt. Funds flowed—eventually several million marks, the equivalent of up to US$50 million today—and propped up diverse movements, from Baltic nationalism to Trotsky’s Nashe Slovo journal and group (Trotsky was unaware). In a famous meeting in Zurich in 1915, Lenin publicly rejected working with Helphand-Parvus, but it’s clear that an arrangement was made—thereafter, Helphand-Parvus’s chief executive in various schemes was Jacob Hanecki (also known as Ganetsky), who was Lenin’s oldest political associate, having worked with him since 1893.

For Helphand-Parvus, Hanecki ran a semi-bogus Copenhagen import-export company that funnelled German funds into agitation networks among munitions and dockworkers in Russia, contributing to the unrest throughout 1916 that eventually toppled the tsar. They also ran what may be the first thinktank—‘The Centre for the Study of the Social Consequences of War’—which did serious work, and also doubled as a front for funding Russian dissent. The ‘sealed train’, which looked like an exile initiative offered to the Germans, appears to have been an initiative of Helphand-Parvus’s; subsequently attributed to the exiles, it was arranged by himself and Hanecki. Though Lenin had rejected direct funds to the Bolsheviks before his return to St Petersburg, there seems no doubt that the Bolsheviks’ sudden explosion of activity was due to the ample supply of funds afterwards—which put them in a prime position to benefit from widespread disillusionment with the Kerensky government. By now, Revolution Incorporated was being run by Helphand-Parvus, Hanecki and Karl Radek from Stockholm, simultaneously supplying the German army with Swedish goods and channelling the money to Russia. Exposure of this nearly destroyed the Bolsheviks, prior to the successful coup/uprising of 24 October. Thereafter, Radek and Hanecki became leading government members, the latter as head of the new Soviet Central Bank. Helphand-Parvus was refused permission to return to Russia. After the Bolshevik shutdown of free speech and the start of Bolshevik state terror, Helphand-Parvus turned against them; from Berlin, he aligned with the Ebert wing of the Social Democrats (though he refused to help them violently suppress the Spartacists) and made proposals for the creation of a ‘European Community’ of nations. He died in 1924, burning his papers soon before. He remained well known, for the worst of reasons: Nazi propagandist Alfred Rosenberg used Helphand-Parvus—who was fat, short, routinely clad in top hat and fur coat, and known for champagne breakfasts and a taste for blondes and orgies—as an example of the Jewish Bolshevik millionaire who had tipped the continent into war. After the Second World War, Helphand-Parvus disappeared from mainstream accounts: neither communism nor Trotskyism was interested in acknowledging his role, and post-war anti-communism was eager to focus on a ‘battle of ideas’, and remove the strands of conspiratorial anti-Semitism from the movement. It is only in recent accounts, such as Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, that the labrynthine complexity of these events has come to the fore and Helphand-Parvus re-emerged. Yet this remains partial, with Helphand-Parvus portrayed as a schemer. In one description he had ‘the finest mind of the Second International’, influential on Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky alike—all of whom appear to have crudified or misunderstood his more subtle arguments—and he essentially foreshadowed the transitional path China would take after the collapse of Maoism in 1979. Yet even today his key works are untranslated and absent from Marxists.org, a site so comprehensive as to include early works by Benito Mussolini and the UFO-Trotskyism of Juan Posadas.

Part of the reason is that a full understanding of Helphand-Parvus’s role is extremely confronting as regards the meaning of the October revolution. Any intelligent person has always accepted that the revolution was an uprising by soldiers and workers who had become radical due to the failure of the government that had taken power in February 1917 and that it was also a well-staged coup with a great deal of theatre about it. The full history of entanglement between Germany and the Russian revolution, indicating that the revolution was to some degree a staged spectacle, is almost too much to bear; I suspect that it is only after the centenary has occurred that such radical thinking may be possible. But no reasonable reading of the available documents—all of which have been available for decades—cannot but conclude that Helphand-Parvus was one of the key figures of the twentieth century, and that the century came to be as it was in ways we are yet to fully comprehend.

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