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Making an Art of Revolution

Mark Perryman invites us to wear our dancing shoes to celebrate the October 1917 centenary 

To sort of coin a phrase ‘ How do you solve a problem like VI Lenin?’ As the centenary of the October revolution fast approaches the accolades provided by the likes of the Royal Academy, British Library and Design Museum exhibitions will be cleared away and the politics take centre-stage. We’ve already had an inkling of what to expect with the aftermath from Charlottesville sparking the moral equivalence brigade spouting their your communism was just as bad as their Nazism yah-boo sucks effort at intellectual debate.

Much of this is easy enough to dismiss and oppose but if in doing so we tie ourselves up in left-wing hagiography then I’m not sure how far we advance our cause either. Lenin remains, of course, the most superb tactician of revolutionary change, and deserves every credit for that, and more too, as a leader of an insurrectionary mass movement who in the process laid the basis for an entirely new society. There are precious few political figures from the twentieth century, what the historian Eric Hobsbawm dubbed as the ‘age of extremes’, who can match Lenin’s achievements. Except for the most embittered of anti-communists none of that should be controversial. The difficulties occur on our side when the tactics, leadership, and new society of Lenin are wrenched out of all context, or as theorists prefer, out of the ‘conjuncture’, to propose a politics of mimicry rather than adaptation to the conditions we face. This is hardly a new debate either, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci first raised this precise issue in the 1920s when he made the distinction between the revolution as a war of manoeuvre versus the war of position.

So a century on, how to celebrate 1917? It would be nice to get it right, after all precious few of us are going to be around for the bicentenary! The imperative of revolutionary change, notwithstanding this conjuncture or that, remains unchanged, and thus makes the best starting point. A notion summed up best by the title John Reed’s epic account of October 1917, Ten Days that Shook the World. An ideal so good that neither Hollywood nor Warren Beatty were able to destroy the message and instead produced a rather decent film version, Reds.

1917 served to inspire across the entire spectrum of the arts. Music, poetry, architecture, design, theatre, fashion, literature, film, has there ever been such a moment where art was shaped out of revolution of such a range and on such a scale? A revolutionary imperative that not only inspired, but recognised that to flourish these artists, writers, designers, poets would need the space to express this imperative in their own terms, not as servants of the revolution but in its service.

This first made sense to me in the mid 1980s, when the Crafts Council hosted a London exhibition ‘Art into Production: Soviet Textiles, Fashion and Ceramics, 1917-1935’. The vivid colours, the variety of shapes, the ever-presence of a sense of movement with a purpose caught my eye and I’ve never forgotten it. Shortly after and the era of Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika meant a much wider re-assessment of Soviet power on the world stage, the beginning of the end of what had threatened to become a new cold war.  And this was reflected too in a popular appropriation of ‘Bolshevik chic’. Harmless enough in intent, broadly well-meaning but pretty much devoid of political content, there goes that conjuncture again.

And so where do we end up for October 2017? In post-Soviet Russia Putin will seek no doubt to represent 1917 as indicative of the might of his Greater Russia nationalism, this was the era of the USSR after all, a nation on a scale that Putin today can only dream of. Meanwhile across what used to be thought of as the West parties of social democracy are suffering a phenomenon the writer and activist James Doran has described as Pasokification. A steep decline in support following these parties’ embrace of the neoliberal consensus, in Greece PASOK has suffered the steepest fall of all but elsewhere in France, Spain, the Netherlands, the Irish Republic social-democratic parties have not only declined but faced an insurgent challenge from their Left too.  None of this amounts to 1917 revisited but chimes nonetheless with the inspirational motives of radical change.

In Britain the picture is different. Because the insurgency has come from within the party of social democracy itself, the rank outsider, the serial rebel, Jeremy Corbyn. Labour of course is not about to become a revolutionary party, it has never been one and will never turn into one. But the sense that a party set on winning parliamentary power can co-exist with the ambition of reinventing itself as a social movement is increasingly prevalent as the defining characteristic of Corbynism.

Finding a way to mix all this together for a 1917 centenary night out is no mean feat. But Philosophy Football, with the help of the RMT, are doing that at London’s Rich Mix Arts Centre on Saturday 21st October.  Described by Time Out as ‘The Sex Pistols of Balkan Brass’ The Trans-Siberian March band headline with a special Shostakovitch inspired set. Michael Rosen reviews how 1917 produced a wave of childrens books at the time. Rosy Carrick performs extracts and interpretations of the brand new translation of Mayakovsky’s epic poem Lenin she has recently edited.  And the surprise hit of the Edinburgh fringe Des Kapital, recalls the events of the Russian Revolution via the songs of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Robbie Williams, a history lesson like none other complete with audience singalongs!  Add author of Landscapes of Communism, Owen Hatherley and Eldina Begic creator of the Comradettes clothing project with Richard Seymour author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics on the spirit of revolution and be prepared to expect the unexpected.

There will be others who will debate the ins and outs of 1917 and all that what was to be done. That is right and proper, but the road to revolution needs its dancing shoes as well as marching boots. 1917? Ain’t nothing but a party.

Art out of Revolution is at Rich Mix, East London Saturday 21st October. Tickets from Philosophy Football

7 Comments

  1. Leninism under its various guises has been a disaster for the British working classes. Democratic centralism usually ends up being a middle class cadre telling the workers what to do, whether in the aftermath of 1917 or as under Blair in New Labour.

    The top down approach in Russia, supported it must be said by Trotsky, opened the door for Stalin and what came after. The same approach under Blair gave us the New Labour clones in the PLP we have today. In the end it just becomes a distrust of the working class and a lack of real democracy. With both the only thing you can rely on is the creation of sinecures for the apparatchiks.

    1. JohnP says:

      Yes indeed, Danny. I’m sure if we had been around at the time in revolutionary Petrograd, and facing the challenges Lenin and the Bolsheviks faced – most of us would have side with the Bolshevik adventurist coup against the orthodox Marxists Mensheviks.

      But , the celebration of the October Revolution on the Left too often stops at the early success of the October coup d’état, and the very real apparent prospect of this producing a revolutionary avalanche Europe-wide – and the rescue of the economically and class composition impoverished Russian economy and society by the might of the German working class.

      Instead, Lenin’s distinctly unorthodox Marxist gamble produced EXACTLY what the Menshevik orthodoxy (and Trotsky a few years previously) had warned of, ie, a monstrous oppressive dictatorship, of the Party, soon in turn ruled by the dictator – keeping the “workers and peasant state” on the road via Jacobin-style permanent mass terror.

      Time for the Left to recognise Trotsky and Lenin as heroes , but TRAGIC heroes, unwittingly bringing into being the most blood-soaked, tyrannous form of social organisation in all human history, “Stalinism”. Stalinism is the rule of a state bureaucratic “transitional new class”, in Russia on the bones of genuine , very temporary,worker’s power, (later simply imposed on many conquered states) garbing itself ideologically in the ersatz red robes of being “the guarantors of worldwide socialist progress”, whilst in fact being the (historically temporary) dictatorship of a state property-based proto-class – “holding the ring” in each Stalinist state, until, many decades and millions of dead later, a conventional private property based conventional capitalist bourgeoisie could be restored.

      Anyone who doubts this needs to answer the question :”Where is the state ownership of property in the old Soviet Empire now “? answer, in the hands of the now transformed ex-Communist Party “nomenclature”, bureaucratic elite – miraculously transformed into a oligarchic new conventional bourgeois capitalist class. A process well underway in China today too – with many more billionaires on the Chinese CP Central Committee than in any branch of the US legislature !

      The Russian Revolution and its utterly counter revolutionary aftermath , Stalinism” is one of the most dramatic events in world history, but , from our longer historical view today, it was also perhaps the greatest TRAGEDY in world history too. A dwindling band of old believers in the “socialist ” credentials ” of the old Soviet Empire, and China, etc, (and even the hereditary monarchist tyranny that is North Korea)might celebrate October 1917 without reservations , including the key Corbyn Circle acolytes unfortunately, but for the rest of us there are “rivers of blood” between what real socialism means and the monstrous dictatorial abortion of revolutionary hope that emerged from the isolation and economic backwardness of post 1917 Russia , in the 70 years of nightmare for its citizens that the Communist Party’s stalinist rule involved.

  2. Mark says:

    The point tho surely being made here is to provide a space where the spirit that ‘shook the world’ in 1917 and inspired an explosive art for change deserves celebration, hence the dancing shoes. Debating the ins and outs of what was to be done deserves its place but just sometimes a night out with the Left ain’t nothin’ but a party, or at least it should be

  3. Bazza says:

    I am afraid it was a revolution where the bourgeois socialists (top downers, deciding for working people how they should live their lives – a socialism FOR) took power for THEMSELVES and you still see this today in the likes of China and North Korea etc.
    The original dreams perhaps as exemplified by the Kronstadt sailors (crushed by bourgeois socialist Trotsky) I belive still offer hope.
    And of course bourgeois socialism led to mass murderer Stalin.
    I think Rosa Luxemburg (although not perfect like all of us) was one of socialism’s finest thinkers and was right (see Paul Frolich’s biography of Rosa) and the best thing we can all bring to the table is our independent critical socialist thinking!
    We need to learn from history and I believe a grassroots, bottom up, participatory, left wing, democratic socialism – a socialism WITH offers hope for every country!
    Solidarity!

  4. Bazza says:

    Think I’ll celebrate on a local free pub jukebox:
    Day Dream Beliver-Monkees “How much baby do we really need?”
    “He’s A Poor Man’s Son.”
    “Something in the Air.” – Thunderclap Newman.
    “Streets of London” – Ralph McTell.
    “Revolution” – Beatles.
    “The Green, Green Grass of Home” -Tom Jones.
    “Stranger on the Shore ” Acker Bilk.
    “What’s Going On?” – 4 Non-Blondes.
    “Common People” – Pulp.
    “Sweet Caroline” – Neil Diamond.
    “Alltogether Now.”
    “Walk On” – Gerry and The Pacemakers.

  5. Bazza says:

    Footnote.
    Rosa Luxenburg was to address an international crowd of workers before the outbreak of WWI I think in Germany but refused to speak (Rosa feared that if she said what she felt that they would soon be set against each other then it may have caused panic).
    But looking through 21stC eyes I hope if it had have been in her position I would have said what I thought was likely to happen then asked the audience: “What can we do brothers and sisters?”
    Perhaps it could have changed history?
    Working people in each country should not fight each other particularly when it is for the benefit of the rich and powerful and capital – lessons to learn indeed! Solidarity!

  6. Imran Khan says:

    At the end of the day, whatever spin is put on it all, Lenin and his October coup de etat ushered in the worst period ever in human history the remains of which we are still dealing with today. No Lenin, no Hitler. It all failed and millions died while millions more lived their lives in poverty and misery.

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