What does the Russian Revolution mean to you?
This year we've been marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution with new books from Tariq Ali and China Miéville, plus Weekend Reads looking at women in Russia before and after the Revolution, the Black Bolsheviks, and lots more.
In this series of posts (Part I below, Part II, and Part III) we ask writers to respond to the Revolution and its importance today.
Boris Groys, author of In the Flow, On the New, and more:
The October Revolution was, uniquely, made in the name of internationalism and directed against all forms of nationalism. The revolution itself and the Civil War that followed were understood by the both sides as a war between The International and Russia – a war in which The International won. Even if Stalin later proclaimed the politics of Socialism in one country, this politics still interpreted the territory of the Soviet Union as a testing ground for the world revolution. Not accidentally every Soviet republic got a right to leave the Soviet Union without the consent of the central power and other republics. In this way the Soviet Union served as a prefiguration of the future worldwide association of the Soviet Socialist Republics.
This internationalist, universalist project remained unfulfilled. Contemporary world politics is dominated by a false opposition between capitalist, liberal globalisation profitable only for the financial elites, and autocratic nationalism that provokes ethnic and religious conflicts. In fact, contemporary nationalism is easily wedded to liberalism because both interpret global space as a stage for competition between individuals, ethnic groups and nations. The difference is only in the degree of harshness with which this competition is practiced.
Thus, what we need today is a return to the Communist project: international solidarity instead of global competition. It has become fashionable – inside and outside of Russia – to consider Soviet Socialism a failure. This is a grave historical mistake. The social experiment started by the October Revolution has shown that the economy based on collective property can work – and can work efficiently. It is the first historical demonstration of this kind but one can be sure that it will be repeated. A great part of mankind is seduced by the neo-liberal utopia: too many individuals believe that they are living start-ups. However, the reality will show itself at a certain point in time. Then the majority of the people will begin to understand that solidarity is a better way to success than competition of everybody against everybody. At that point the October Revolution will be not only remembered but also re-enacted.
Andrea Gibbons, author of City of Segregation (forthcoming):
The Russian Revolution always meant a great hope. An unexpected victory, glorious in its immensity, as soldiers threw down their arms to help the people break apart the structures that stunted their lives. Women fought to take their rightful place in all endeavours. Soviets worked to transform society through collective discussion and ownership and cooperation. The revolution cracked an opening to rethink and reinvent absolutely everything in pursuit of a new society that would allow us our full humanity.
A great hope reverberating down to me through others who also hungered for this new world. Through Don Toñito sharing stories of the Salvadoran revolution and the red flag of the FMLN and cassette tapes of Victor Jara. Through a picture of Maria in her long skirt and combat boots shaking hands with Fidel. Through Leonardo’s descriptions of new ways of life forming in Zapatista autonomous zones. Through LA’s vibrant grassroots organisations successfully building struggle collectively from the bottom up. Down where the love and fury lie that alone drive revolutionary transformation.
Elsewhere, in many a fucking rut, this hope turns stagnant as the ability to listen and fight, rather than the state, withers away. How comfortable they must be, these dogged routines of defeat.
We could learn instead from the transformative content of Russia’s revolutionary movement, not its old rigid forms. From methodologies and collective reimaginings, rather than dogmas. From the dialectics of Marx, the popular education of Freire and Horton and hooks, the black Marxist tradition, the Panthers, the revolutionary praxis of Latin America. Begin where people are, recognise our collective struggle is over both the structure and the hegemonic meanings from which we must free ourselves.
What better way to celebrate this centenary than with a fight we actually mean to win?
Eric Hazan, author of A People's History of the French Revolution, A History of the Barricade, and more:
I was sipping coffee in the sun on Boulevard de Belleville, with my pen and notebook on the table, and I thought, ‘I don’t know how to answer this question’. I had been wrong to attempt an answer, and I didn’t know what to do. On the central reservation of the Boulevard – a wide one, for one of Paris’s least expensive markets is held there twice a week – a crowd of poor Roma, Arabs and Black people were busily trading in another kind of market, where old clothes, cast-offs and worn-out shoes are laid out in plastic bags on the pavement. I tried to organise the images in my head: Rodchenko’s stairs, his wife Stepanova’s caps, the bridge being raised in Eisenstein’s October, the architectural drawings by Tatlin and the Vesnin brothers… It didn’t work. That much could be expected: it’s like imagining Épinal if Épinal were on the banks of the Neva. So writers, perhaps: Mayakovsky and Gorki, Mandelstam and Babel… but how could I make them speak? How could I avoid recounting already well-known biographies? My gaze wandered from the other side of the Boulevard to the Rue des Bluets, and I remembered that when I was young there was a maternity unit on that street where the doctors and mid-wives – Communists, or Communist symapthisers – had imported ‘painless delivery’: an enormous piece of progress whose repercussions are still being felt fifty years later. But could I put together a piece on the Russian Revolution and science? After the experience of the falsifier Lysenko, after the Party’s diatribes against the pill (considered Malthusian)… no, impossible. I was suddenly pulled out of my perplexity by the two-tone siren that Belleville residents immediately associate with the police. And indeed, a coach, or rather a big six- or eight-seat van arriving from the Lycée Voltaire side had taken to the central reservation and was slowly advancing like a sweeping truck. As the vehicle progressed the poor devils hurriedly wrapped up their cast-offs in plastic bags and fled along the roads. After reaching the Ménilmontant metro station the vehicle made a U-turn, chasing away the last misérables who had not had time to gather up their goods. The side door facing me was open and a young blonde woman was leaning out slightly, but I could not make out her expression. This spectacle caused an epiphany. It was here that I should seek the meaning of the Russian Revolution. This revolution was a moment where the poor devils won out over their eternal enemies, the rich and their police lackeys. No matter what it later led to, no matter if none of the mismatched-shoes salesmen dispersed across the Boulevard had even heard of it. It had been possible. They had won. They had raised their head, projecting dreams of a life other than selling frayed jackets and plastic combs on the pavement.
Domenico Losurdo, author of War and Revolution and Liberalism: A Counter-History:
"Two epidemics swept the world in 1918. One was Spanish influenza […] The other
epidemic was Bolshevism, which for a time seemed almost as contagious and ultimately proved as lethal as the influenza" (Niall Ferguson, The War of the World, pp. 144-5).
Thus speaks the most successful Western historian of our time, for whom the October Revolution is evidently only a chapter in the history of madness (and criminal madness at that). Yet that same revolution put an end to the senseless ‘genocide’ [Völkermord] so memorably denounced by Rosa Luxemburg; it forced the end of what Bukharin called a ‘nightmarish corpse factory’. The First World War was an orgy of killing in which even people wholly extraneous to the conflict were forced to participate. As the authoritative British historian AJP Taylor observed, ‘some 50 million Africans and 250 million Indians were involved, without consultation, in a war of which they understood nothing’. They were simply rounded up by the London government and deported thousands of miles away, ultimately to be led into the ‘nightmarish corpse factory’ which was now working away in Europe at full speed. They were taken there as members of an ‘inferior’ race, which a ‘superior’ race could in good conscience sacrifice as cannon fodder (see War and Revolution. Rethinking the Twentieth Century, pp. 276-7, 309 and 168). And yet for Ferguson as for today’s dominant ideology, there is no doubt: colonial domination and the bloodbath of world war are synonymous with normality, or even with psychological good health, while the October Revolution – opposed to all this – represents epidemic, the spread of madness.
When did the revolutionary disease first strike? According to another of the liberal and capitalist West’s acclaimed court historians, Richard Pipes, Bolshevik October was but the conclusion of the ruinous historical cycle that began in Russia with the 1905 Revolution. Other exponents of historical revisionism go yet further; in the West the revolutionary virus and this epidemic had begun to flare up already in the mid-nineteenth century, with the publication of the Communist Manifesto, or even before that, with the spread of the Enlightenment philosophy that gave rise to the Jacobin revolution (prologue to the Bolshevik Revolution). By this point, everything is clear: for the historical revisionists as for the dominant ideology, spiritual and mental health is equated with the stability of the ancien régime. Taken as a whole, this latter was characterised by a social and racial hierarchy, characterized in the colonies by the expropriation, deportation and decimation of the natives. This is the world the October Revolution had the great merit of sending into crisis. If Lenin’s appeal to the ‘colonial slaves’ to break their chains inspired and stimulated the world anti-colonial revolution, other slogans remain to be realised. Perhaps they ought to be rethought, in order to realise their full effectiveness.
Michael Löwy, author of Redemption and Utopia, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin's 'On the Concept of History', and more:
"Such a phenomenon, in the history of humanity, will never be forgotten (...). Even if the revolution failed (...) it's philosophical prophecy has not lost its strength. Because this event is too important, too much connected to the interests of humanity, and it's influence too large on all parts of the world, for it not to return to the memory of the peoples, at the occasion of favourable circumstances, and the return of new attempts of this kind".
Is this a philosophical comment on the Russian Revolution, written in 1998 ? Not quite. It is Emmanuel Kant on the French Revolution, in his 1798 work The Conflict of Faculties ! But my friend Daniel Bensaïd used to quote it when discussing the historical meaning of October 1917...
The Russian Revolution opened an emancipatory horizon that has not been closed, in spite of the treasons, the deceptions and, finally, the brutal capitalist restoration. Radical emancipatory projects of the 21th Century do not need to start from scratch : they can build on the lessons of Red October. For instance : in order to change society, you need a mass revolutionary movement of the subaltern classes able to overthrow the ruling state apparatus, to break the grid of the capitalist iron cage, and to impose the collective appropriation of the means of production.
This doesn't mean that there were no limits, problems and contradictions, even in the first heroic times of the Soviet power (1917-23). In her pamphlet on the Russian revolution (1918), written in a German jail, Rosa Luxemburg proclaimed her solidarity with the Bolsheviks who "saved the honour of international socialism" but criticized several of their actions. Some of her critical comments – on the right of national self-determination, or on land distribution to the peasants – are doubtful, but others, in particular those on democracy and democratic freedoms, are deeply relevant. With prophetic insight, Rosa Luxemburg foresaw that the limitation or suppression of democracy and democratic rights in the soviets would lead to bureaucratization and dictatorship. The triumph of Stalinist bureaucracy after 1924 was the tragic confirmation of this warning.
Communism in the 21th Century will have to include this democratic and libertarian dimension. But new problems have also appeared, which the generation of October 1917 could not have predicted. Among these, the ecological issue, the destruction of nature by industrial (capitalist) civilisation, with dramatic consequences, is perhaps the most important. It must become a central dimension in the renewal, in our times, of the revolutionary program : we need an eco-communist perspective.
I believe there will be anti-capitalist emancipatory revolutions in the 21th Century : this is not a prediction, but a wager. But we have to discard the disastrous illusion that they will be a repetition of the storming of the Winter Palace. To paraphrase the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariategui : future revolutions will not be an imitation of previous experiences, but the heroic creation of the people.
Long live revolutionary imagination!
See also: Part II and Part III