Yuri Slezkine and the Many "Ends of History"
Gabriel Boric, Joe Biden, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Collage made with Canva.
The House of Government is a self-described "saga of the Russian Revolution." Yuri Slezkine, in over 1,000 pages, follows the lives of Bolshevik revolutionaries as they tried, and failed, to build a new world in the image of Karl Marx's utopian predictions. It is simultaneously a historical, literary, and sociological work. It is, on the whole, very impressive.
It is not, however, universally well-regarded by historians. Kevin Murphy called some parts of his work "sheer absurdity." From his perspective, Slezkine's work is another two-dimensional anti-communist critique that compares Bolshevism to a religion. Murphy places The House of Government in the tradition of Nikolai Berdiaev's 1917 essay the “Religious Foundations of Bolshevism,” which compares the Bolsheviks to a fanatic and irrational religious sect. But Slezkine never makes such a comparison: He does not call the Bolsheviks "religious" as shorthand for fanatical or irrational, he calls them "millenarian."
Millenarianism is the belief in the inevitability of an imminent, radical transformation of society. Generally, this means the coming of an apocalypse, a utopia, or the former followed by the latter (as in the case of the Christian 'millenium" from which the concept derives its name). Christianity provides much of the language Slezkine uses: The prophets of millenarian sects hope to "drain the swamp." The revolutionary "days of distress" are followed by "the real day" or the "kingdom of God." Often, once the "real day" fails to materialize, these revolutionaries "re-awaken," believing that more needs to be done to prepare the world for rapture. This often means looking for a scapegoat, and turning inward and attacking the sect's own members.
There are religions that are millenarian, such as Christianity, and others that are not. There are also ideologies that deny the supernatural and call themselves "scientific" that are still fundamentally millenarian, like Marxism: Karl Marx predicted an imminent, radical transformation of the relations of production. It would take the form of an apocalyptic destruction of the old world, followed by the creation of a utopian new one. According to Marx, all history is the history of class struggle, and he predicted a future with no class struggle (therefore, the end of history). He is famously light on the details when describing communism, because it is the "real day" on the other side of this end of history.
In both Christianity and Marxism, Slezkine sees belief systems that respond to the human need to narrativize, providing a telos to the never-ending slog of existence. At least a dozen Hollywood movies focus on the theme of living in the moment instead of constantly waiting for something big to make life meaningful. The protagonist gets everything they've ever dreamed, and still feels empty. What these films critique at the level of the individual, Slezkine critiques at the societal level, and he does not reserve this criticism exclusively for Marxism.
This comes through when reading the chapter of Slezkine's book concerning monumental architecture and city planning. He compares the plans for a new Soviet Moscow to Napoleon III's Paris, Hitler's Berlin, and the Washington D.C.'s National Mall. Planned cities and architecture built to represent the "temporal power" of regimes is omnipresent, even in places where the professed ideology is anti-statist. Washington D.C. was designed to look like a shield with a cross from a bird's-eye-view. It is supremely ironic that, just outside of this planned city meant to be a monument to the state, there is an airport (which required huge state investment) named after a former head of state who once said that "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help. "
Washington D.C viewed from above in 1915. Image form Pinterest.
Capitalism and liberalism have never been non-ideological (as they claim to be). However, they have not always been millenarian, either. Ideologies, like religions, do not necessarily prescribe a utopian or dystopian endpoint to history. It was in Ronald Reagan's era that the endpoint of history seemed to be in sight — that capitalism had swept away the old world and would replace it with one of utopian prosperity. The millenarian sect which controlled the Soviet Union had loosened its grasp, soon to let go entirely. Around the world, new technologies had increased life expectancy, and the efficiency of food production. Free enterprise would continue to give humanity more, more, more, forever.
The notion that the end was nigh most famously found its expression in Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued the universalization of Western liberal democracy was imminent and worth celebrating. Written in 1992, the sense of "ending" was obviously tied to the end of the Soviet Union. But Fukuyama interpreted that ending as a transition of one phase of history to the next, almost like a Marxist stage. Fukuyama, among many others, represents millenarian capitalism. Much like the Bolsheviks, these prophets of a new liberalism believed that the coming of the "real day" was inevitable. Unlike the Bolsheviks, they were not planning a revolution to bring it about.
The "great disappointment" did not come long after the end of history was proclaimed. The United States, center of the new order, was attacked in 2001. Simultaneously, its hegemony was being challenged by a new superpower in China. Most importantly, the infinite growth promised by neoliberals came up against the very real limits of the natural world. In 1992, the same year Fukuyama proclaimed history's end, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was drafted to combat "dangerous human interference in the climate system." The end of history (infinite, unimpeded progress) was incompatible with the end of humanity (due to the destruction of a finite planet). History, it seemed, was going to keep going.
The "great disappointment" is always followed by the "re-awakening." The old prophets were blamed for the failure of history to end and replaced by new ones who preached the exact same thing: promising to "drain the swamp" with renewed fervour. America would need to be tougher on China, an imminent victory in the war on terror (now against ISIS) was assured, and climate change was a hoax to begin with.
The millenarian character of Donald Trump's movement is most obvious among his most radical supporters: The QAnon cult predicts that soon, something violent and irreversible will replace the world of chaos and corruption with one of order and justice. Much like other millenarianisms, the end is constantly being delayed but is always soon. Across the board, however, Donald Trump's supporters want to re-affirm the perpetual American hegemony they were promised with the end of history.
We are still living in the era of the great disappointment of the neoliberal revolution. Perhaps the surest sign that people are becoming disappointed in the supposed end of history is that those invested in the status quo are making increasingly utopian promises of what the world will bring. Capitalists have more and more taken to promising new technologies and innovations that will signify the real end of history, and enable the infinite growth we were promised.
Elon Musk represents the utopian capitalist response to climate change: That R&D departments in a free market system can design technologies that make capitalism compatible with a carbon-free world. Given that some are beginning to understand the limits of our planet, he's also proposing we think bigger and exploit the much more abundant galaxy. If Earth is a lost cause, there's always Mars! Jeff Bezos' prediction is slightly different than Musk's but no less reminiscent of science-fiction: moving all "heavy polluting" industry to space, in order to keep the Earth clean. As long as we trust these people to make these visions a reality, we can safely say that the climate crisis and the threat to the "end of history" have been averted.
All of these predictions are promises that — if we stay the course, don't make waves, and let the status quo continue — these billionaires and their sci-fi technologies will solve all our problems. We don't need to do anything (except maybe cutting taxes and subsidizing their businesses). Okay, so maybe history didn't end and capitalism hasn't made everything perfect yet, but it will soon! Stay out of the way.
Young people don't seem excited by the end of history anymore: A 2019 Gallup poll found that as many young people (ages 18 to 39) had a favourable view of socialism as did capitalism. That is unlike any other generation surveyed. Notwithstanding that socialism is not the only alternative to capitalism, it seems that the neoliberal revolution, might be "eaten by the children of the revolutionaries," as Slezkine put it.
Like in the Soviet Union, this might explain the reluctance to have a leader that represents this new generation. The leaders of the Soviet Union aged with the regime, creating a gerontocracy. The last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was also the first to be born in the Soviet Union. Something similar is happening in the United States, center of the neoliberal revolution: each president has been older than the last since 2008. The last two presidents have been the oldest in America's history. Admittedly, America's best-known socialist is even older. Still, it begs the question: When the new generation becomes tenable for the presidency, will it be because Americans have come around to an alternative to neoliberalism?
Chile just elected the youngest president in its history: 35-year-old Gabriel Boric is a socialist who ran on constitutional reforms and the creation of a welfare state. He is also the second-youngest head of state in the world. Reflecting on his historic win and his plans for Chile, he made reference to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet: "If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave."
Change is coming, even if it is taking place on the timescale of generations. The neoliberal revolution, disappointing to the last, will eventually end. When it does, it is critical that what replaces it does not present a utopian vision and then sacrifice people to achieve it. It does not need to be an anti-ideological movement, but it cannot be a millenarian one. We must disavow ourselves of dreams to cleanse the world, to fit it to what is comprehensible and cut out the rest. We cannot "drain the swamp," but, as Slezkine suggests, we can "Swim against the current, paddling with our hands, day after day, year after year."