A TINY RED BUTTERFLY WING FLAP
Readers will recall our "little exercise in the historical imaginary," published in Vol.
70, No. 1 (January 2006) as "Red Butterflies Flap Their Wings: A Parallel Twentieth
Century." (All "Editorial Perspectives" essays are available on the S&S website,
This historical narrative which most readers (unfortunately, not all; see
below) quickly realized was intended as fantasy, not reality recounted world
history since the early 20th century. Lenin lived until 1933. In the late 1920s he
steered the emerging Soviet Union onto a course that a) reckoned with mass religious feeling and sought to harness that impulse for socialist construction, and b)
fostered "ground-level mobilization and a culture of critical debate and
controversy." From this followed a series of developments worldwide popular
support for the USSR; formation of new socialist federations in power in various
parts of the world; a Socialist-Communist coalition that defeated Hitler and avoided
World War II; emergence of a "Second World" of capitalist ruling classes in retreat,
in alliance with reactionary ruling strata in the world South; and a vibrant United
Nations promoting popular-front assaults on social and economic problems. The
essay ends by asking: "Hey, we are entitled to dream, aren't we?"
Several responses have come in, and I would like to share these with S&S
readers. Some of these appeared on both public and closed email listservs, and
some in private correspondence. Because of the range of venues, and uncertainty
about the proprieties of publication, I will present these comments without names
attached. We are always delighted when our work generates interest and controversy; as you will see, however, in some cases, these responses evoke the "be careful
what you wish for" reflex. I begin with the positive.
Retrospective science fiction can be as illuminating as science fiction of
the future. "Red Butterflies Flap Their Wings" so illuminates 21st-century socialism, if read seriously. I was as profoundly moved by "Red
Butterflies" as by Warren Wagar's great novel, A Short History of the
Well, thank you. I like to quote this piece of S&S lore, attributed to one of our
founding editors: "I don't much like destructive criticism; I very much prefer
constructive criticism; but what I really like is praise!"
From another reader:
Yes, we are entitled to dream. I couldn't help but note, though, that in
your "optimism of the imagination" alternative historical narrative,
there were revolutions and socialist federations formed in every part of
the world except Europe, outside of Northern Europe; Africa, outside
of Southern Africa; the Middle East; North America. . . . You allow for
mass movements [in these regions], but no revolutionary transformations. Have I got too much imagination or have you too little?
There were two short comments: 1) "What is this stuff? Lenin died in 1924. He couldn't have been doing anything in the late 1920s. And I didn't read any more." Oh,
well. It may not be a question of "too much" or "too little" imagination, but of
whether any exists at all. 2) "Thanks for the very informative link, but don't you
think a byline would be appropriate? It's either David Laibman or Derek Lovejoy.
Can you ID?" This (obviously) came in from an email list, and the article did appear
there with initials at the end only as is our (modest) custom in the pages of S&S.
The full name of the author should have been supplied when the article was posted.
I hope it is now clear that "D. L." refers to the Editor, David Laibman, and not to our
esteemed Editorial Board and Manuscript Collective member, Derek Lovejoy, who
is our resident physicist and specialist in the history and philosophy of science.
On to another substantive comment.
The "Red Butterflies" story was enjoyable, but gnawing at my pleasure
was also some sadness at its key "turning point" the idea that if
Lenin had only lived, all would have been well. Not only does this
notion encourage the most extreme version of "Great Man" theories of
history, this notion ignores Lenin's willingness to preside over the Red
Terror, the repression of the Potemkin mutiny, and the substitution of
rule by the Bolshevik Party for the actual rule by soviets workers'
and soldiers' councils. . . . I would have said the most important turning point in the 20th century was the failure of the French and German
Socialist Parties to stand together against war in 1914.
Moving now to the darker side:
If this is history, so is the Brothers Grimm. This article ia a clear example of why the left has failed so miserably in bringing about real change
throughout the world. Instead this kind of thinking gave rise to some
of the worst totalitarian regimes under Lenin/Stalin, under Mao and
under Hitler. To gloss over the crimes of the past bodes terrible things
in the future. Certainly the crimes of capitalism have wrought untold
misery for the people of the world; and capitalism can also claim glorious achievements in science and technology; and it can claim that at
least it is still the dominant power in the globe. That's no excuse to
urge the resurrection of equally inhumane bureaucratic and military
structures as those of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. Both capitalism and communism have served to prop up elites which have
exploited and destroyed the human spirit. It's time to burn those old
garments and weave new dreams. I reject your history, see through
your fantasies, as well as those of our fathers. A curse on your lies and
And, finally, this comment:
It would be more helpful if those of us who yet think scientific socialism has something to say to the world today would dream more about
the future and less about the past. Our attitude towards our own past
needs to be one of clear-headed and honest criticism, not dewy nostalgia for happy outcomes that, in part, our own hubris made impossible.
Wow. Where to start?
Taking the comments in order: the "Red Butterflies" essay did not pretend to
achieve exhaustive coverage of all parts of the world. In addition to Northern Africa, North America (outside of the United States), and Latin America (outside of
Cuba and Central America), Japan was not mentioned. My alternative history did
assume that progress would be uneven; that qualitative transformation would come
to some places before others. This still seems reasonable to me. Of course I don't
give my sketch the status of a prediction; I had intended only to illustrate the ways
in which alternative unfoldings of a vast historical transformation whose core is
transcendence of capitalism and construction of socialism might take place. I leave
predictions to Nostradamus and Jeanne Dixon.
The second comment raises two questions: 1) Is "Red Butterflies" an excuseor
apology for a reality that was in fact oppressive? 2) Does it amount to a "Great
Man" theory, in which the course of history is determined by the fortuitous qualities
of single individuals?
The answer to the first question is clearly "no." The whole point is to wonder
what might have happened if Lenin who for a complex of reasons in the material
and cultural reality of the early USSR and its historical background commanded a
large amount of respect and adulation, and therefore political power had turned
his authority toward fostering a climate of critical, mass democracy. (And also, of
course, had lived a bit longer than he did in reality.) Would Lenin have developed
that vision and genius, which, I think, is certainly present in his theoretical work?
Or would he have succumbed further to the authoritarian environment in which
early socialism was born? We will never know. But the speculation is valuable,
regardless of where we come down in historical interpretation. To think that my
imaginative exercise depends on, or reinforces in some subtle way, an interpretation
that ignores or glosses over Potemkin, or Kronstadt, or the undermining of the independence and political diversity of the soviets, misses the point. Allowing for a
range of judgements on the Bolsheviks' rise to power, and on the circumstances that
surrounded that rise, any position along this spectrum is compatible with the question, What if Lenin's timeline and later development had been different? If one
insists that Lenin was a totalitarian monster and that he could not have been otherwise, then the alternative to what actually happened is unreal, and uninteresting. I
personally hold a much more nuanced view, and think that a Lenin who lived longer
might have developed in various ways, with important consequences for the future.
Which brings us to question (2): is this a Great Man theory?
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