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Book Reviews

Russian bourgeoisie

Cronies or Capitalists? The Russian Bourgeoisie and the Bourgeois Revolution from 1850 to 1917. By David Lockwood. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. £39.99 / $59.99

This study by David Lockwood, who teaches at Flinders University in Australia, is important in two ways. It contributes both to the history of Russia in the decades leading up to the establishment of the Bolshevik regime and to the theory of historical materialism.
As history, the book traces the evolution of the political attitudes and activities of the big capitalists of late Tsarist Russia, with special emphasis on the Russo-Japanese war and insurrection of 1905, World War One and the upheavals of 1917. The author debunks the Bolshevik view of the capitalists as dependent on Tsarism and therefore unable to fight for a bourgeois revolution (thereby justifying Bolshevik leadership). On the contrary, they consistently opposed the archaic Tsarist state as a fetter on the development of the productive forces.
However, according to Lockwood, it was not the capitalists who eventually played the decisive role in overthrowing Tsarism and modernising Russia. This role was assumed, especially after the outbreak of war in 1914, by a new social force known as “the Third Element” – technical specialists of various kinds in voluntary coordinating bodies like the War Industry Committees, in city and provincial government and in the army. These aspiring technocrats were the backbone of a new “developmental state” that displaced the old state in February 1917 and took final form under the Bolsheviks.

This brings us round to the author’s general contribution to Marxian theory. He emphasises that the tasks of the bourgeois revolution need not be – and, in fact, usually are not – carried out by the bourgeoisie itself. In Russia, in Japan after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and in other late industrialising countries, these tasks have generally been carried out by a modernising state. The role of the state is immensely strengthened under conditions of intense military competition and, above all, during wars.

Lockwood argues in this connection that the state belongs not to the superstructure of society (alongside law, ideology, etc.) but to its basis. That is, the state is a specific type of production relation that interacts with other production relations (in modern times, with capital). I agree that it is less misleading to assign the state to the basis than to the superstructure, but perhaps it is best to treat it as a third category, distinct from both basis and superstructure.

While in most respects the author’s exposition is admirably clear, he might have made a greater effort to avoid confusion over terms. The problem is that central concepts -- capital, capitalism, capitalist, bourgeois, bourgeoisie – can be understood either in a narrow sense, to refer only to private ownership of the means of production, or in a broad sense that also encompasses state ownership. In the World Socialist Movement we use these words in the broad sense. Lockwood uses them in the narrow sense until the final chapter, when without warning he switches to the broad sense, even calling the system established by the Bolsheviks “state capitalism” (inside quotation marks that suggest reservations).

Nevertheless, on the whole we can recommend this book. Unfortunately, like most academic works, it is quite expensive and there is no paperback edition. Get your public library to order it.


Leninists in Space

Red Planets - Marxism and Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould & China Miéville. Pluto Press. 2009.

Lots of people like science fiction stories, and many SF stories contain elements of Marxist ideas. Thus, the capital notion to educate and inform SF readers everywhere about the true nature and implications of what they're reading.

Sadly, that's not what you get. One quickly learns, in the conflation of science fiction with modernism and in the conflation of modernism with political vanguardism, that this is a collection of essays by and for Leninist academics. Any pretension to a simple, lively and accessible Marxist guide for SF enthusiasts and political ingénues soon goes out the window in favour of a dense and often tedious discourse designed principally to be read, one suspects, by the other contributors. To be sure, there are some good bits, including an interesting history of utopian fiction detailing the birth of science fiction along with industrial capitalism. Curiously though, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell seem to have been airbrushed out of this history, an omission that to a non-Leninist looks a bit fishy.

Making heavy weather of definitions (do we need a whole chapter on whether fantasy is allowed to be called SF?) the writers tell us that SF is not simply a futuristic way of presenting dark realities or bright possibilities. No, it is a 'literature of cognitive estrangement' which has two phases, one inflationary and one deflationary, which are homologous to the two sides of Marxism – 'transcendent vision' versus 'astringent demystification' (p73). Learn this, and parrot at parties.

There are some well-aimed swipes at futurist thinkers who resolutely avoid any political thinking, for example Ray Kurzweil's ideas on the Singularity: "The whole point of Kurzweil's speculation ... is precisely to bring us to utopia without incurring the inconvenience of having to question our current social and economic arrangements" (p106). And they have issues with how the class struggle tends to be subsumed by aesthetic navel-gazing: "As actual, lived communism recedes into the past (only a Leninist could possibly write that!) it is tempting to read this shift from revolution to art as part of a retreat from real-world politics" (p201). The trouble is, this book reads like part of that retreat.

There is a tendency to over-theorise as well, finding a Marxist message in everything or else a reactionary viewpoint under every stone, Kubrick's 'colonialism' in 2001 A Space Odyssey, for example, or the 'racist structures of the western imaginary' in The Matrix (this despite the fact that the role of Neo, the hero, was written originally for the black actor Will Smith). More significantly, the 'Two Deaths' argument posits a distinct and discrete historical period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, even though there is no real Marxist justification for this – it simply plays well for Leninists obsessed with supposed historical crisis points.
It's not as if science fiction writers themselves are incapable of intelligently critiquing the genre. They do, and they do it very well. Still, an accessible Marxist critique would have been a worthwhile contribution. Instead, with a lofty and elitist presumption of familiarity, the writers ignore the opportunity to bring Marxist ideas to a new audience in favour of what often smells like a self-congratulatory exercise in exclusion. This is a shame, and it's the opposite of what science fiction writers and indeed science writers themselves set out to do, including many of those discussed in this book. Worth reading for real Marxist SF connoisseurs only, the book seems less disposed to shed light on science fiction than to shed academic respectability on Leninism, and as such will no doubt form a valuable and useful contribution to the publishing credits and departmental status of those who contributed to it.


First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Žižek. Verso, 2009. ₤7.99.

Has Slavoj Žižek (the superstar Slovenian “theorist”) signed a piece-work contract with Verso Books? One can’t help wondering because this slim volume brings his tally with that publisher alone to around 21 titles. This Stakhanovite output would be more impressive were it not for his notorious habit of recycling old material, like any good stand-up comedian does.

This two-chapter book is no exception: Žižek seems to have rapidly assembled it by combining his favourite quotes and theoretical hyperbole with some recent news stories from the unfolding economic crisis.

The first chapter (lamely entitled: “It’s Ideology Stupid!”) promises a “diagnosis of our predicament, outlining the utopian core of the capitalist ideology which determined both the crisis itself and our perceptions of and reactions to it.” Setting aside the question of whether ideology can determine a crisis, Žižek does at least provide some valid observations on capitalist ideology’s aims to shift the blame for a crisis away from the capitalist system itself. Yet few of his ideas strike the reader with much force of insight or novelty; and the chapter is haphazardly organized – as if Žižek’s only aim was to squeeze in as many of his treasured anecdotes as possible.

The second chapter (“The Communist Hypothesis”) lays out some of the “communist” ideas that have seasoned Žižek’s recent books. He dances around the question of how to define “communism”, however, choosing instead to locate the “set of antagonisms which generates the need for communism”.

That is at least a start, the reader might think, as it is true that communism (socialism) is not some abstract, ethical ideal, but rather the real solution to problems that cannot be resolved under capitalism. If the problems (or “antagonisms”) of capitalism are clearly explained, the nature of communism – as the solution – will in turn come into view.

But any initial hope that Žižek will eventually explain “communism” dissolves as soon as he unveils those “antagonisms,” said to be: (1) “the looming threat of an ecological catastrophe”; (2) “the inappropriateness of the notion of private property in relation to so-called “intellectual property”; (3) “the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics)”; and (4) “the creation of new forms of apartheid, new Walls and slums” (author’s italics).

What clear image of communism can possibly emerge from such an overly specific – and basically random – list of contemporary problems?

Žižek tries to avoid getting entangled in his own antagonisms, so to speak, by asserting that the fourth one (also referred to as the separation between “the Excluded and the Included”) is “qualitatively different” from the other three, which would somehow “lose their subversive edge” without it. Of course, Žižek might have defined that key antagonism more precisely as the class division between capitalists and workers – but where’s the fun in that?

The ambiguity of the fourth antagonism allows the author to bend it to his will, in a way not possible with a clear concept like “class”. In particular, it allows Žižek to insist on the (false) distinction between “communism” and “socialism,” condemning the latter for wanting “to solve the first three antagonisms without addressing the fourth”. On that basis Žižek says that socialism is no longer the “lower-phase” of communism (as Lenin had asserted to first introduce the false distinction), but rather the “true competitor” and “greatest threat” to communism.

Given his astounding indifference to what communism actually means, it is no surprise that Žižek cannot fathom workers consciously aiming for a new form of society. The task for his brand of revolutionary is not to explain to fellow workers what communism is, why it is necessary, and how it might be achieved, but rather “to wait patiently for the (usually very brief) moment when the system openly malfunctions or collapses, have to exploit the window of opportunity, to seize power – which at that moment lies, as it were, in the street”.

Žižek insists (repeatedly) that he takes such ideas seriously – even ending the book by advising fellow intellectuals that it’s “time to get serious once again!” – but he is careful to insert just enough ambiguity and humour in his hard-as-nails Leninism to free himself from any real responsibility. Unfortunately, more than a few leftists (including the ageing “New Leftists” at Verso Books!) take Žižek’s “communist” ideas seriously, which only shows how misunderstood communism (socialism) is today.