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MAY 2022

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Field Notes

Futures past

On Bini Adamczak’s Yesterday’s Tomorrow

Gao Brothers, <em>Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself on Top of Lenin’s Head</em>, 2009. Stainless steel. Photo: Ethel Shipton.
Gao Brothers, Miss Mao Trying to Poise Herself on Top of Lenin’s Head, 2009. Stainless steel. Photo: Ethel Shipton.

Just over a century ago, imprisoned amidst inter-imperialist war, the Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg declared that bourgeois society stood at the crossroads of socialism or barbarism. Exhausted by the bloodshed, the working masses of Europe faced this dilemma. Given that socialism did not come to pass, however, it follows that barbarism has reigned ever since. Reading lines like Luxemburg’s today, the idea that things could have turned out otherwise feels far-fetched. Yet to many living at the time, the alternative felt not only possible but probable. Past generations projected their hopes and dreams onto a worldwide movement that promised to free them from the shackles of capitalist exploitation. How might the present relate to these futures past, to the missed opportunities and unrealized potential of a bygone age?

Different answers have been proposed to this question. Walter Benjamin, the celebrated German-Jewish literary critic, offered one in his posthumously published theses “On the Concept of History” (1940). Looking back at the failure of international revolution, he nevertheless insisted that “the past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption … the historical materialist is aware of this.”1 Benjamin believed the shattered expectations of earlier epochs could be redeemed, through a retrieval of those moments which held more promise than what did transpire. Such moments were pregnant with possibility, even if they ultimately miscarried. By meditating on the turning points and crucial conjunctures, the materialist can trace strands hidden within the thread of time that point beyond themselves. The latest attempt to take up this Benjaminian task is Yesterday’s Tomorrow: On the Loneliness of Communist Specters and the Reconstruction of the Future, by the German author Bini Adamczak, now available to Anglophone readers.2

Adamczak first made waves in the English-speaking world five years ago with the translation of her 2003 text Kommunismus: Kleine Geschichte, wie endlich anders wird, rendered by the publisher (likely for marketing reasons) under the rather unusual title Communism for Kids. Shortly after its publication, it found itself at the center of a firestorm of controversy from conservative as well as liberal outlets.3 In the years since the book was released, the uproar has died down. Adamczak’s career as a historian of the USSR has remained less well known, despite the appearance of a couple of pieces on the subject. One of Adamczak’s essays on gender and the October Revolution was translated back in 2013,4 as was a shorter commemorative note on the centenary four years later.5 For the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 uprisings, she wrote an article comparing them to the Bolshevik seizure of power half a century earlier.6 MIT’s recent rendition of Gestern Morgen, her extensive 2007 account of the degeneration of Bolshevism, will build on this.

Yesterday’s Tomorrow is a peculiar work—not a book of history, per se, but a book eminently concerned with history. Raymond Geuss describes it in the foreword, adapted from his 2014 review of the second German edition,7 as “a lyrical and philosophical reflection on history in the service of rekindling utopian desire.” Adamczak wants to retread the Russian revolutionary sequence in order to determine where it went astray. She explains the motive behind her book in its pivotal fifth chapter, “Promise”:

To pick up the thread, the faded, filthy red thread, to untangle it and roll it up, to follow it back through this labyrinth with its many twists and turns, all the way to the place where the path clearly divides into right and wrong, into exit and dead-end for the first time; to the place where failure lies buried, where errancy begins; to follow the path back to the point where one could have kept things from going this far, history from going this far: to here, the place we are now. That is the phantasm, one of many, that motivates this book, that gives it its structure.

Much as the book’s subtitle suggests, this motivation is spectral; it conjures up ghosts from an earlier era and dwells upon the paths not taken. Its temporality is therefore unusual, since for Adamczak the future at present is entombed in the past. “Working backward, we may try to engage in a conversation with the dead,” she maintains. “Feeling our way haltingly toward the moments of hope, which can only be salvaged truthfully through history, not by dispensing with it.” Unlike Foucauldian genealogy, this method does not “turn to the past to make the present comprehensible but rather seeks to grasp its unfulfilled future, a possible present which never managed to become the present.” A number of writers have theorized about the futureless quality of the contemporary world, where nothing can be imagined except a continuation of the status quo.8 However, Adamczak holds that one can excavate the future from the debris of history by going back to the last moment where the capitalist order was truly threatened: i.e., to October 1917.

Loren Goldner once remarked, in a passage Adamczak quotes at length, that depending on when someone dated the final defeat of this revolution—1991, 1985, 1968, 1956, 1953, 1939, 1927, 1923, 1921, 1919, etc.—a whole range of concomitant stances could be inferred.9 Yesterday’s Tomorrow starts at the end, or at least what Adamczak takes to be the end, and moves in reverse. The story begins in the spring of 1940 near the Polish border, with a prisoner handoff between the Stalinist secret police (the NKVD, precursor to the KGB) and the Gestapo. Communists and antifascists from Germany and Austria, many of them Jewish, were being repatriated to the very countries from which they only a few years prior had fled persecution. Betrayed by the Soviet regime as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, they now found themselves isolated and alone, at the mercy of the Nazi state. News of the nonaggression treaty, signed the previous year, gradually trickled out to loyal cadre around the world. Disbelief was soon followed by disillusionment, as Adamczak recounts its reception amongst French party members who saw headlines announcing it.

She then turns the clock back to 1937, the year of the Great Purge, which in reality stretched from the show trial of Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev (the so-called “Trial of the Sixteen”) in August 1936 to the one against Alexei Rykov and Nikolai Bukharin (the “Trial of the Twenty One”) in March 1938. “Whoever doesn’t want to talk about Stalinism had better keep quiet about communism,” contends Adamczak, paraphrasing the critical theorist Max Horkheimer. In her view, Marxists must account for the fact that their historic bid at emancipation yielded domination instead. Reactionaries and liberals are not tasked in this manner, for they only aspire to restore some older form of social organization or perpetuate the current form. According to Adamczak, the self-immolation of the party in the Yezhovshchina—as the Terror came to be called, after NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov, who was himself purged in 1939—was the result of a vicious logic of paranoia filtered through a centralized political apparatus. Worse yet, this logic flowed from historically understandable premises. Encircled by hostile powers, the country under Stalin turned its gaze inward, stressing a need for constant vigilance. More often than not, this played out in farcical legal proceedings and ritualistic displays of self-criticism, but by the end almost a million people had been “liquidated.”

Next, Adamczak shifts her focus to the early 1930s, mostly in Germany, where the language of class had grown stilted and ossified. Perhaps most fatefully, though, this rhetoric failed to prevent the rise of fascism. Just a decade and a half before, the proletariat had come very close to overturning the entire bourgeois edifice with the Spartacist revolt of January 1919. But in the intervening years, the workers succumbed to the fetishism of commodities and the strange spell it exercised over them. “Swayed by the force of habit, they cede their power to a power of their own creation,” Adamczak writes. “[T]he oppression of the working class may be the work of the working class itself.” From there, the book rewinds to Moscow circa 1927. Visitors to the Soviet capital arrived from all over the globe, hoping to catch a preview of what the world might look like in the near future. Last but not least, Adamczak circles back to the origin: to the revolution itself, book-ended by the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 on one side and Lenin’s death in 1924 on the other. Kronstadt, the site of an insurrection of soldiers and sailors violently suppressed by the Bolsheviks in 1921, splits the chapter in half. Yesterday’s Tomorrow ends with a one-paragraph postscript.

Throughout the text, Adamczak draws upon a wide array of eyewitness testimonies to weave together her narrative: Manès Sperber, Heinz Brandt, Georg Glaser, Franz Jung, Peter Weiss, Walter Benjamin, and even the future DDR premier Erich Honecker. Most of the memoirs she cites are in German, which makes sense not only given her original readership, but also due to the longstanding connection between that country’s communists and the USSR. Journalistic clippings by Sebastian Haffner grant insight into the underground resistance to Hitler, while the Sovietologist Karl Schlögel’s research provides background to the Terror. Boris Groys and Michael Hagemeister’s edited collection on “biopolitical utopias” in the twenties allows Adamczak to sketch the optimistic mood that prevailed before Stalinism fully crystallized. Readers unfamiliar with details of the October Revolution might find it difficult to keep track of all the offhand references to episodes and events, but the presentation is compelling enough that it should hold their interest.

Wedged between all the dates are a few theoretical interludes: a meditation on morality and historical conditions, on the party as an “epistemological pragmatism,” and on the relation of revolution to counterrevolution. Of these, the last is doubtless the most intriguing. Joseph de Maistre, the notorious Savoyard reactionary, famously quipped in 1796 that “the counterrevolution will not be a revolution in reverse [une révolution contraire] but the opposite of revolution [le contraire de Ia révolution].”10 Hannah Arendt dismissed this as an “empty witticism,”11 but Maistre’s bon mot stands in a way he could not have suspected. Counterrevolution is simultaneous and immanent to the revolution; although it may correspond to external factors, it is not imposed from without. As Adamczak observes, “Communism has experienced defeats inflicted by overpowering and brutal enemies, but also and primarily a defeat from within.”12 The Whites were repulsed and yet counterrevolutionary measures were still adopted, precisely in order to safeguard the revolution. She warns that,

the exit that an exteriority represents harbors … the tendency to overwrite responsibility for the failure of communism, the tendency to banish the possibility of it happening again either with reference to the unrepeatable specifics of the historical situation or with reference to the unabated power of the eternal enemy… It tends to assign all crimes to a stylized other, and in this way serves up a guilty defense that constitutes a leftist subject freed of any deep-seated relationship to the failures and crimes of its forbears.

For Marx and Engels and their adherents from the nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, it was the memory of the French Revolution of 1789 that “weigh[ed] like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”13 Names of martyred bourgeois revolutionaries such as Robespierre and Georges Danton hung over the heads of proletarian partisans such as Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Yet as Adamczak points out, the latter could not have foreseen that their own names—along with those of Marx and Engels themselves—would come to occupy a similar space for anyone seeking to hoist the banner of the proletariat after the Russian Revolution of 1917 failed to spread across the world. Adamczak’s argument in Yesterday’s Tomorrow, as already made in her previous book, is that there can be “no pristine recourse to an innocent, unblemished urtext.” Unfortunately, the grim legacy left by Stalin has to be reckoned with and not simply disowned. She goes so far as to say that “the first reproach against anticommunism must be that of downplaying the crimes of Stalinism,” not just because most of its victims were fellow communists but because it quite nearly discredited the one movement that might deliver humanity from bondage.

Efforts to erase or otherwise ignore the subsequent history of Marxism under the slogan “Back to Marx!”, even when undertaken by “philological Marxists” and other highly sophisticated interpreters, leave behind what Adamczak claims mattered to him most: the ambition to change the world. But why place so much emphasis on October 1917 and its aftermath? Why not some other date, like May 1968? Many at the time perceived the limitations of the Bolshevik Revolution, especially if confined to the borders of the old Russian Empire, even as they welcomed it as being of great historic import. Luxemburg is exemplary in this regard, and Adamczak shares her ambivalence. Yesterday’s Tomorrow is sharply critical of the policies pursued by the Soviet leadership, from Lenin’s orders to shoot army deserters to Trotsky’s militarization of the workforce. Still, while she does not aim to repeat 1917, Adamczak clings to the revolution’s utopian aspect. To her, this date was the site of an unparalleled outpouring of “communist desire, which will no longer permit itself to be tamed through anticipatory obedience to a certain reality.”

Communist desire [kommunistischen Begehren], “the desire that misery finally come to an end,”14 is a crucial category for Adamczak throughout the book. The notion was spelled out more clearly in the epilogue to Communism for Kids, which this reviewer has criticized elsewhere.15 Questions of desirability aside, however, numerous scholars have examined the utopianism that accompanied the foundation of the USSR.16 One of Adamczak’s abiding preoccupations has been “to reopen a utopian perspective” in the face of pervasive capitalist realism, to again spark the radical imagination.17 Glancing at the past, one easily discerns that the horizon for politics appeared much broader to these revolutionaries than it does at present. Despite their eventual disappointment, the firsthand accounts compiled in Yesterday’s Tomorrow remind readers of a forgotten feeling that the world might be arranged differently. Paradoxically, as Theodor Adorno put it, “Marx and Engels were enemies of utopia for the sake of its realization.”18 Hence the unrestrained enthusiasm surrounding the year 1917, as some thought it was about to be realized.

To give one of the more extreme examples of utopianism mentioned in the book, take the 1922 manifesto penned by the Biocosmist-Immortalist wing of the Bolshevik party. Leonid Krasin, a high-ranking commissar and former roommate of Lenin, was a member of the group. Among other desiderata, the document included a threefold demand for “immortality, resurrection, rejuvenation” in the section excerpted by Adamczak. These three provisions were interrelated: 1) the revolution must transcend the frailties of the flesh by overcoming death; 2) the dead who toiled and suffered in nameless obscurity down through the ages ought to reap the rewards of liberation as well, and thus must be brought back to life; 3) youth should further be restored to them, so that they might enjoy their freedom in good health. Krasin, a cryogenics pioneer, would later oversee the mummification of Lenin after his proposal to freeze the body was rejected.19 Notwithstanding their outlandishness, such demands evince a boldness of vision Adamczak feels has been lost.

Utopian sentiments still lingered some five decades after the revolution. Recently unearthed time capsules from 1967 attest to the enduring hopefulness of Soviet citizens, no matter how bittersweet they may seem in retrospect, considering the conflict currently raging in the region. “You are the lucky generation; wars are just history,” reads one dug up several years ago in war-torn Ukraine. Another, recovered from a discarded monument in the town of Okulovka in northwestern Russia, addresses “those who don’t know what war is.”20 It is important to remember in bleak times that things were not always thus, and that what once seemed possible might yet seem possible again. For this reason, Yesterday’s Tomorrow serves a vital anamnestic function. Today, amidst inter-imperialist war once more, histories of this sort are sorely needed.

  1. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” [February-May 1940], translated by Edmund Jephcott, Selected Writings, Volume 4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 389-390.
  2. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2021.
  3. Chad Kautzer, “Why Conservatives Are Panicking Over a Short Story About Communism,” Field Notes Brooklyn Rail, June 2017.
  4. Bini Adamczak, “Gender and the New Man: Emancipation and the Russian Revolution?”, translated by Gregor Baszak, Platypus Review № 62: December-January 2013, 2-4.
  5. Bini Adamczak, “The Future of the Past,” translated by Jacob Blumenfeld, Field Notes Brooklyn Rail, December 2017.
  6. Bini Adamczak, “The Double Heritage of Communism to Come: 1917–1968–2018,” translated by Frank Ruda, Crisis & Critique 5:2, November 2018, 10-28.
  7. Raymond Geuss, “Nyet: A Review of Bini Adamczak, Gestern Morgen. Über die Einsamkeit kommunistischer Gespenster und die Rekonstruktion der Zukunft,” Radical Philosophy 186, July-August 2014, 58-59.
  8. Cf. “the slow cancellation of the future.” Franco “Bifo” Berardi, After the Future, translated by Arianna Bove, Melinda Cooper, Erik Empson, Giuseppina Mecchia, and Tiziana Terranova (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011), 18.
  9. “If someone said they believed that the Russian Revolution had been defeated in 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, or 1936, or 1953, one had a pretty good sense of what they would think on just about every other political question in the world: the nature of the Soviet Union, of China, the nature of the world CPs, the nature of Social Democracy, the nature of trade unions, the United Front, the Popular Front, national liberation movements, aesthetics and philosophy, the relationship of party and class, the significance of soviets and workers’ councils, and whether Luxemburg or Bukharin was right about imperialism.” Loren Goldner, “Amadeo Bordiga, the Agrarian Question, and the International Revolutionary Movement,” Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory 23: 1, Winter 1995, 83.
  10. Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on the Revolution in France [1796], translated by Richard A. Lebrun (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 105. I use Arendt’s translation here because it better captures the wordplay.
  11. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1963), 8.
  12. Adamczak, “The Double Heritage of Communism to Come,” 13.
  13. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1851], translated by Saul K. Padover, Collected Works, Volume 11: August 1851-1853 (New York, NY: International Publishers, 1979), 103.
  14. Bini Adamczak, Communism for Kids [2003], translated by Jacob Blumenfeld and Sophie Lewis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 94.
  15. Ross Wolfe, “‘This Tale is About You!’: On Bini Adamczak’s Communism for Kids,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 27 June 2017.
  16. Probably the most famous study is Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989).
  17. “When really-existing capitalism seemed without alternatives, we had to reopen a utopian perspective.” Bini Adamczak, “Communism is for Everybody: An Interview by Jacob Blumenfeld,” Viewpoint Magazine, 16 May 2017.
  18. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics [1966], translated by E.B. Ashton (New York, NY: Continuum, 1973), 322.
  19. For a popular account of Biocosmist-Immortalist schemes, see John Gray, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 103-204.
  20. Sasha Raspopina, “Soviet Time Capsules: Messages from the Past,” Calvert Journal, 20 December 2017.


Ross Wolfe

Ross Wolfe is a writer and historian living in NYC.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

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