Frans Joakim Titulaer
After Lenin’s death in 1924, the Soviet leadership scrambled to keep together their young country, recently ravaged by civil war. As the Bolshevik elite strove to safeguard their revolution, they found themselves balancing two evils. First, there was the threat of factionalism, which Lenin had outlawed after the devastating Kronstadt rebellion of 1921. Secondly, the Bolsheviks feared Bonapartism: The historical precedent of a revolution being corrupted by a military strongman from within ranks of the newly formed government. As Marxists, the Bolsheviks believed in the cyclical nature of history, and opponents of Trotsky were particularly eager to compare him to Napoleon. After his subsequent exile, Trotsky would write in The Revolution Betrayed (1937) that it was in fact Stalin who had turned out to be the Bonapartist (the latter made sure to have Trotsky assassinated some three years later.)
Today’s techno-revolutionaries share some notable parallels to the revolutionaries from a century ago: Both see technological change as the impetus for rebuilding the socio-political system. Blockchain technologies often seem oddly abstract and difficult to understand because much of its potential lies in social change. Its distributed characteristics is supposed to bring about decentralized control, detached from the rotten legal and economic structures of conventional liberal democracies. Blockchain’s most prominent application, cryptocurrencies, evade the slow grind of national and international legal systems, including (but not limited to) tax codes. Cryptocurrencies are smart contracts: Computer protocols intended to digitally facilitate, verify, and/or enforce the negotiation and performance of a contract. Smart contracts allow the performance of credible transactions without third parties. Like the communist movements of the early 20th century, these semi-organizations largely define themselves in opposition to the prevailing power constellations. Moreover, these forms of organization continue to be haunted by the fear of irrational dedication to the strongest actor in the new power structure.
Given these parallels, the droves of people currently putting their faith and their savings into cryptocurrencies would do well to take a leaf out of the Bolshevik playbook, and look at the pitfalls that befell previous techno-revolutions. The fledgling Blockchain revolution seems to bear many of the characteristics of the technological revolution we saw some twenty years ago: The dawn of the modern internet. For many, blockchain has come to represent what the Internet once was hoped to become; in fact, some observers go so far as to call it the real Internet. Like current blockchain technologies, the infrastructure of the 90’s internet was supposed to be built and run by many small actors with a decentralised power structure, a democratising force that would foster free exchange of information as well as goods.
However, the dispersed structure of the early internet also made it hopelessly fractioned. Without good search engines, people surfed the web by going from site to site – these were the days when websites would often include a separate page dedicated to collections of links. As the technology matured, both trade and communication were consolidated by big platforms such as Amazon, Youtube and Facebook, while navigation was left to giants such as Google and Yahoo. This streamlined services, but also monopolised them and created unassailable empires. The Internet 2.0 became the Bonapartism of the Internet revolution.
The betrayal of the Bolshevik revolution did not arise from the animosity between Trotsky and Stalin, but was rather a reflection of the internal contradictions of the political technologies available to the Soviet leadership at the time. Soviet rule was founded on an idea of democratic centralism, in which the leaders of the revolutionary working class of Russia were all recruited from a major organization consisting primarily of workers under a democratic internal hierarchy. Like under Napoleonic rule, the party hoped to ensure a technocratic form of representation by radically extending knowledge production through innovations in accounting systems and bookkeeping. Their claim to legitimacy however also came to depend upon the promises that had interested so many. Rather than withering away to give room for new social structures, the state became an oppressive monolith.
Likewise, there are certain internal contradictions to Blockchain technologies that mirror those of the early Internet. Just like Google and Facebook, cryptocurrencies are democratic in that these technologies can be created and used by anyone, but monolithic in that they depend on massive user bases to function. The euphoric belief in the unknown potential of a new technology fuelled the dot-com bubble of in 1990’s, and is causing massive speculation in the cryptocurrency markets today. The profitability of web services in the 90’s were vastly overestimated, and the lion’s share of the net was gobbled up by a few actors who today wield powers of Orwellian proportions. The population of different cryptocurrencies increases by the day, and while most will soon enough be relegated to the dustbin of history, it remains to be seen if a new Bonapartes will emerge from among them, and what it will do to the Blockchain revolution.