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What kind of centenary celebration does 1917 deserve?

Italian Raise the FlagA century ago, 23rd February 1917, Russian women marched out in protest from the St Petersburg factories where they worked to defy Cossacks armed with swords and took control of the city’s streets. In less than a week they had been joined by hundreds of thousands of other workers. The St Petersburg Military Garrison mutinied in their support. A rebellion led by women for people’s power had begun.

The 1917 centenary will be one of the publishing events of the year with writers from Left and Right battling in words over the legacy. The Royal Academy, the Design Museum, British Library and Tate Modern will all host major exhibitions of Revolutionary-era art. In October Philosophy Football, in association with the RMT, will present a night out at London’s Rich Mix Arts Centre ‘To Shake the World’ celebrating the culture of the Revolution. While during the day Michael Rosen and friends will host an event for families featuring the children’s books of the revolution. And there will even be a guided history walk to visit the hidden history of connections between London’s East End and 1917.

Not all agree that 1917 deserves any kind of celebration at all. Art critic Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian rages against the spectacle of the Royal Academy ‘Revolution : Russian Art 1917-1932’ exhibition because “The way we glibly admire Russian art from the age of Lenin sentimentalises one of the most murderous chapters in human history.” Unless the Royal Academy (the clue might be in the title Jonathan) has reinvented itself as a bastion of Marxism-Leninism it is most unlikely they will be sentimentalising communism nor, given their reputation, is glibness likely to characterise how they showcase the art via context.

It is undeniable the Russian Revolution cost lives, millions of lives. It took place in the era of World War One when millions of lives were being lost on the fields of France too. And this was the age of Empire with millions more lives sacrificed in the cause of imperial plunder and subjugation across the world. All three events, 1917, WWI, Empire were bloody. None should be sentimentalised. Each needs to be understood. Anything else is the denial of history.

In ’89 the fall of the Berlin Wall was famously claimed to mark ‘the end of history’. Yet a generation later the cause of radical change in an era of #dumptrump and #chaoticbrexit remains .The strength of the connections between these 2017 social movements and 1917 are there to be argued over ,the history contested but to dismiss the revolution of a century ago as either wholly irrelevant or entirely the model for change now would be both arrogant and unwise.

Aurora for tweetThe crucial point of the October Revolution was reached some seven months after those women workers first marched when the Russian Royal Family’s Winter Palace was successfully stormed. The signal for the assault to begin was he firing of a blank from the bow gun of the Russian warship, Aurora. The ship’s
crew, inspired by the protesting women had mutinied back in February to side with the Bolsheviks.

And what followed 1917 was a movement, in Russia but beyond too. That unleashed the most unprecedented wave of creative imagination. Today the art of the period has become chic, fit to hang on the most respected gallery walls, treated as historic artefact not a tool of revolutionary change. Of course nobody would decry the simplistic beauty of Lissitzky’s Red Wedge but to divorce the aesthetic of this, and hundreds, thousands of other pieces from a period when art, poetry, music, film, theatre and more went into production with a revolutionary impulse would be a travesty. Perhaps the most famous cultural movement out of 1917 was contructivism. But these weren’t shapes artfully assembled without purpose. This was construction with designs on everlasting change, revolution. Too often this is represented by both the establishment, and reproduced too by those who fail to learn the lessons of 1917’s failings, as a top down didactic. Rather at its best, politically and artistically the Russian Revolution was a movement from below inspired by the human capacity to shake the world in which we live.

Soviet Construction for tweet-1This is the point those who decry the 1917 Celebrations miss and some who join with the commemorations miss it too. This wasn’t a revolution made by Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin. Though all three played their part of course in what it was, and what it became. But most of all this was a revolution made by ordinary people, women factory workers began it, rank and file sailors fired the starting signal. And with their actions and achievements they inspired a vision for a better world. This is what we should celebrate of 1917, the potential that we the people have, together, to effect change.

Philosophy Football’s 1917 Centenary range of T-shirts is available here.


  1. Bazza says:

    Interesting and informative piece by Mark and yes it was a revolution from below and if we had been there at the time on what 12 hour working days with poverty pay and meagre rations whilst the rich and royals stuffed their mouths with gold we would have probably been participants too!
    But the problem was Lenin, Trotsky,Stalin took the power for themselves which Rosa Luxemburg was concerned about enough to describe as “bourgeois socialism.”
    Yes remember, understand and empathise in solidarity but most importantly learn from.
    Perhaps grassroots, bottom up, participatory, left wing democratic socialism was the answer all the time?

  2. Tim Pendry says:

    This is a very difficult one but surely our response to 1917 is not celebration or condemnation but an attempt at better comprehension. And it is good to see the revolution as not just the creation of a cadre but as a movement as well.

    How was it that a determined bunch of revolutionaries were allowed ruthlessly to capture control of a whole empire and was what ‘went wrong’ inherent to the process or the result of the determination of the revolution’s enemies to crush it by any means possible?

    Personally, I find the Soviet Union (as it came to be) such a complex phenomenon that I find it hard to condemn outright the staggering cultural and developmental achievements that created what amounted to a new form of civilisation even if it lasted only seventy or so years and collapsed into sclerosis and bureaucracy.

    On the other hand, it was also a wrong turning that caused unutterable harm to socialism in the more developed world simply by existing ‘over there’ and being used as a weapon by the existing order to crush or contain dissent – and the conditions in which it emerged meant that millions of people suffered beyond meaning just to hold things together, let alone progress.

    Maybe moral judgements are utterly meaningless at this point. For every argument that looks on the experiment as a moment of cruel horror, there is another that points out magnificent achievement. A cold assessment of the British Empire or the United States of America or China since 1949 would come up with the same complexity and inability to come up with a definitive simple judgment.

    Perhaps the best approach is to consider it just a factor (a ‘fact on the ground’) that created the world in which we exist and then analyse it not for lessons but for clues as to what may be possible and what is not possible.

    The Soviet experiment strikes me as giving us at least four themes to explore; that revolutionary cadres can seize power under certain conditions; that no system of planning can quite take account of human complexity; that any serious transformation from one state of development to another cannot but have serious human costs; and that idealism exhausts itself in the end and cannot defeat the economic and strategic realities in which it is embedded.

    Draw your own conclusions from that …

  3. Marie Lynam says:

    The complex matter of how to interpret 1917 was tackled by the Trotskyist J Posadas in his book: Retour a Lenine, Edition Science Culture et Politique.

    J Posadas based himself on Trotsky’s masterly analysis that 1917 took place in one of the most backward countries in Europe; and that through WWI and the 1918 Civil war, the best Bolsheviks and social organisers were killed. The Revolution hardly killed. It is the counter-revolution that did all the killing. The two things must be differentiated.

    The Revolution was not carried out by a few Bolshevik cadres. It came from below, just as Tim Pendry said in his contribution. I quote from him (above), to try and deepen this aspect:

    “Personally, I find the Soviet Union (as it came to be) such a complex phenomenon that I find it hard to condemn outright the staggering cultural and developmental achievements that created what amounted to a new form of civilisation even if it lasted only seventy or so years and collapsed into sclerosis and bureaucracy.”

    I think he is right in this. The ‘staggering cultural and developmental achievement’ could not have been performed by a few leaders. This was a mobilisation of human intelligence, audacity and creative ability; it had come in conditions where the mass had found a leadership (Lenin and Trotsky), and the leadership was prepared to help hoist, with absolute honesty, the mass of the people into the leadership of society, through the Soviets (invented by the masses in 1905).

    What Trotsky shows in The Revolution Betrayed, is that the best communist and revolutionary cadres having perished, and the economic conditions being so backward, the Revolution had to bring back the old civil service of the Czar, and even some of their military strategists. The level of the Communist Party sank, and a layer of people who only want socialism in Russia developed. When Lenin died, the idea was lost that Socialism could only come from defeating world imperialism was lost.

    A bureaucracy developed, national-minded and self-interested. And yet, in only 10 or 15 years, the Soviet Union was already catching up with the best in Western capitalism.

    Trotsky is the one who explained that if Revolution does not spread in the world, and if State ownership and planning do not spread, then individual interests return and want power again.

    It is a tribute to the quality of the ‘Workers State’ that it did not go back to capitalism in spite of Stalin – and indeed those who supported Stalin did not want to return to capitalism because they were profiting from State property.

    It is a tribute to the qualitative leap that the ‘Workers State’ represents, that the USSR fought tooth and nail in WW2 and defeated Nazism, in spite of Stalin who never imagined that new Workers States would form during that war and immediately afterwards. In France and Britain, there were revolutionary situations in 1945-48.
    Stalin died 1953, and his policy went with him.

    In 1977, the USSR adopted The New Soviet Constitution. It declared the support of the USSR for all movements of National Liberation in the world. The policy of Stalin had died properly then. Without the Soviet Union, Cuba would have been smashed, and capitalism would have found some way of stopping China.
    The Soviet Union then intervened in support of Vietnam, and then Mozambique, Angola, and many other places in the world. The very presence of the Soviet Union in the world was containing capitalism.

    The role of Posadas (1912-1981) in this matter lies in having insisted on the pivotal importance of Soviet support to Cuba in Angola, in a war that eventually defeated South Africa and its stooges in Mozambique, Angola and other countries.

    Posadas showed what this meant inside the USSR itself. This policy was the reverse of Stalin’s. It indicated a process of what he called Partial Regeneration in the Soviet Union.

    He analysed this regeneration could not be complete without a return to Marxism in the Communist parties. Marxism being the scientific method of analysing the social processes. Stalin having put that method in the bin – and having liquidated much of the left and the Trotskyists from all the Communist parties. When Stalin was doing this in the world (1926-1939) in the world, capitalism thought him a good guy, and would accept some ‘pacific coexistence’ with the USSR.

    What Posadas showed in his life’s work (1912-1981) is that the thought method of pragmatism and electoralism in the Labour Party was given scope and space by the policy of conciliation of the USSR with capitalism after 1924. For example, in 1926, the Anglo-Russian Committee betrayed the General Strike in Britain, and the Labour Party leadership felt vindicated in its policy of rebuffing the Communists (CPGB) and of keeping the word ‘socialism’ out of its vocabulary.

    What is relevant of Posadas now is that the pragmatic and idealist way of thinking in the Labour Party is not really the fault of the Labour Party or Trade Unions. Pragmatism and idealism do not contribute to the scientific transformation of society, but after 1924 (Lenin’s death), Marxist thinking was steadily buried in the Soviet Union. The Communist parties were encouraged along national roads to Socialism. And the Labour Party was left with no convincing examples and ideas to show how the USSR had managed to change society. And so pragmatism, idealism, electoralism and conciliation with capitalism continued in Labour; we are still suffering the effects of this, of course, and this is one aspect of the loss we incurred in Britain, through the rise of bureaucracy in the USSR.

    But as someone else said above, this is largely because capitalism did absolutely everything possible, to ensure that the USSR stayed circumscribed – and did not ‘export’ Revolution.

    The revolutionary tendencies in the Labour Party in 1945 stimulated Bevan and Attlee. But they did not find in the Communists (of Britain or of the USSR) models and ideas convincing enough to help them reorganise the Labour Party for the aim of social transformation. And so the right wing Labour sectors continued to prevail, and Attlee and Bevan adopted the nuclear weapon to save British imperialism and the capitalist system.

    And what do I say?

    I do not think that the USSR has died. Proof is how the people of Crimea voted in a few hours, at more than 90% to stay in Russia. And how the peoples of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine (and others) met around Lenin’s statues. Why were the pro-fascist Kiev counter-revolutionaries bringing down Lenin’s statues?
    Because Lenin has not died.

    I think it is very encouraging that Tim Pendry (sorry I do not know him, just read him above) recognises the “staggering cultural and developmental achievements that created what amounted to a new form of civilisation even if it lasted only seventy or so years and collapsed into sclerosis and bureaucracy.”

    I cannot believe that such a staggering achievement can have died. I cannot grant to individual rapaciousness the ability to overrule this achievement of common good. The struggle over the NHS is about this.
    The individual interest is at war with the common good. The common good will win, I say.

    Comradely greetings, Marie Lynam for, 10.2.2017

    1. Tim Pendry says:

      Although I do speak of the horrors and mistakes alongside the achievements, I do not want my comments to be considered as support for Trotsky against Stalin or particularly in favour of either.

      On the contrary, when it comes to the brutal business of survival and development, it is probable that Stalin was the wiser man. Nor am I one to forgive the treatment of the Kronstadt Mutineers easily. It was an era of common cruelty and idealism alike – the two are not unconnected.

      There is a logic in the situation when power is seized by force. You cannot go back safely and ‘moderate’ – whether it is a Baathist coup or a Communist coup. The fact of force always leaves enraged opponents ready to reclaim territory and the act creates changes to the wider world that often demand (from the perspective of others) intervention.

      After all, once the Bolsheviks insisted absolutely on withdrawal from the war against Germany, they created an existential problem for the Western allies that drew them into supporting counter-revolution which then brutalised all sides in civil war – a dynamic of intervention that we see in Syria today.

      Trotsky would never have reached Berlin even if Pilsudski had not halted him. Western and Central Europe would have united against a threat to their order while the excesses of thugs like Bela Kun shows another truth – you cannot control your more enthusiastic supporters. What happened in Munich, Berlin and Budapest fuelled the fears of the middling sort and created the grounding for national socialism.

      Yet what alternative did the people of Petrograd have faced by a ‘Socialist’ in Kerensky committed to war and a Tsarism ready to return with no programme but reaction (and the standard bunch of useless constitutional liberals who act like suet pudding weith narcissistic tendencies at the centre of any crisis). It was a maelstrom of stupidities but also of lack of alternatives for everyone in a period of history as short as the one between the Brexit vote and the Article 50 Act being signed.

      We can go over and over and over what happened and nothing about it is inevitable but no one was in control. Lots of independent actors, who did not read each other’s minds and with no script, can only be understood restrospectively as played off against each other by circumstances in conditions of anarchy.

      They were then were obliged to take violent and cruel actions simply to protect their position against existential threat – much as Al-Assad is ‘forced’ into greater violence by Clinton’s ridiculous insistence that he had to go without actually sending in the military to remove him. She turned him into a warrior. Liberals don white helmets and lose, warriors grab guns and win under conditions of anarchy unless something even more brutal restores force from outside.

      The Soviet system collapsed because a weak liberal – Gorbachev, a nice man perhaps but one who lacked greatness – pulled away all the wedges and chewing gum that held the thing together and did it too quickly. Chaos ensued and you end up with a Russian populist connected to the Deep State, a man not afraid of the gun at the end of the day.

      The Soviet Union killed itself because of the conditions that were applied to it by a history over which it had little control. Trotsky would not have made a blind bit of difference to that.

  4. James Martin says:

    Mark Perryman is right to view the revolution as essentially about ordinary working people, with women playing some key leading roles in it. But it’s significance cannot be understated. The revolution was also a revolution in the rights and status of women, a call to liberation for oppressed nationalities and a secular approach to resetting the influence of religion on the state.

    The ideals shattered against blockade and civil war (aided of course by western capitalist powers), where ‘war communism’ was little more than the equalisation of want. But the ideals never went away, even in the darkest days of the gulags. No other social system could have withstood the onslaught of the Nazi war machine and eventually drive it back to Hitler’s bunker liberating the concentration camps along the way. No other country suffered as much as the USSR in the fight against fascism, for every three people who died in WWII one of them was Russian. My own father, like many others, served on a destroyer protecting the arctic convoys sending supplies to help that conflict and which stands as an heroic example of anti-fascist unity.

    For a time after WWII, and even after the tragedies of 1956 and 1968 things looked as though they could transcend the shackles of those who ruled the soviet states. In the DDR despite the fact that eastern Germany had been largely rural up to 1945 the rapid industrialisation of the liberated state under the leadership of the SED meant that up to the 1970s living standards were ahead of the capitalist west Germany, but the failure to replace an ageing leadership, to have a democratic center to the planned economy, meant that the potential was squandered.

    Even so, the collapse of the USSR and the other European communist states was a defeat not only for the workers of those countries, but for ours too, and it is a defeat that we are still paying a heavy price for.

  5. Rob Green says:

    The Russian Revolution did not cost lives. It saved lives by putting an end to the imperialist slaughter of WW1. The brutal counter-revolution on the other hand and the emergence of the Stalinist excrescence did cost millions of lives.

    It must be said that whilst Stalin was responsible for his own crimes it was the West’s successful defeat of the European revolution in the 20s and 30s and the containment of the young Soviet Union that was responsible for Stalin. The energy and potential of capitalism it seems was not at that time completely spent. It still had another few decades left in it and another `golden age’ courtesy of the mighty US and Stalinist collaboration. Now however capitalism is a completely spent force. The current political-economic arrangements have themselves become a coffin for it and there are no alternative arrangements available that could give capitalism a new lease of life. Whilst imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism, US-sponsored globalization, Pax Americana, was it seems the highest stage of imperialism. This time if the world revolution fails Stalinist brutalism will be the least of our worries. The demented capitalist class will blow up the world as there will be no other options available to it.

  6. David Pavett says:

    It is interesting that a discussion of one of the most formative events of the 20th century should produce so little reaction. I haven’t been to the Royal Academy exhibition yet but I certainly will do so.

    Every one who wants fundamental social change and who believes that a truly human society can only come about when the great majority understand and participate in determining the direction of society is bound to reflect on the energies and creativity released by the Russian revolution and by the eventual destruction of that energy and creativity in a massive avalanche of violence, quasi-religious dogma and a self-serving elite which brooked no discussion about its objectives and decisions.

    The Russian revolution and its aftermath is is an exhilarating, difficult, complex and disturbing thing to understand.

    The great flowering of thought and creativity of the decade following the revolution gave a taste of what a revolution could bring. It fostered the psychology pioneered by Lev Vygotsky, the linguistics of Volosinov, and of course the artistic developments which are the subject of the exhibition.

    A book produced in 1982 called One is Not Born a Personality by K Levitin gives a vivid description of the tumult in university psychology departments and the breakthrough in understanding of human psychology that this made possible.

    Now at a 100 years distance from those events older people need to understand that there is no felt connection to the events. My father was at school when the revolution took place. He was given the nickname “Trotsky” by his classmates. The consequences of the revolution dominated 20th century history for every political conscious person. Now it is a fading memory and a younger generation of activists is hardly aware of it all.

    This is where political education becomes so important. It is not only the Russian revolution that should concern us but all the big developments in human history, even going back to the transformative impact of the ancient technologies and the interaction of different civilisations. “Man cannot live by bread alone” and equally politics cannot flourish on a gruel consisting only of the latest events and the personalities involved in them.

    So it is good to be reminded of the importance of the Russian revolution and the need to reflect on the reasons for its ultimate demise.

    It is important too to avoid stereotypes. The Stalinist domination the communist movement supressed creative thought. But it did not do so entirely and the Historical Materialism publishing house is publishing works of creative Marxism from the later Soviet period which are truly remarkable. One such is The Dialectics of the Ideal by Evald Ilyenkov. It is an astonishing work that shows that the spirit of creative Marxism had not been entirely suppressed by the army of hack theoreticians created by the Soviet system.

    Lots to think about.

    1. Tim Pendry says:

      There is also an Exhibition at the Design Museum [London] from Mid March to early June: “Drawing on rarely seen material, Imagine Moscow presents an idealistic vision of the Soviet capital that was never realised. These unbuilt projects suggest an alternative reality for the city, offering a unique insight into the culture of the time.”

  7. Peter Rowlands says:

    The artistic and intellectual legacies of the revolution are of course important, but for this site it is surely the political legacy that will be most important, and I fancy here and elsewhere increasingly commented on as we move closer to the anniversary.
    I am personally somewhat ambivalent in my view, despite having been a member of the International Socialists (now SWP) in the early 70s, a Trotskyist organisation, although purists would deny that,certainly the Posadists, whose contribution to this article illustrates the sectarianism and deification of the leader that much Trotskyism degenerated into.
    Should the revolution have taken place in the form that it did? I am inclined to think that the Mensheviks were right, and that a coalition of forces based on an ongoing constituent assembly (shut down by the Bolsheviks) would have stood a better chance of creating a durable and democratic socialism than the Bolsheviks failed to do.The Russian leaders failed to understand the European socialist movement, seeking to impose a centralised party model which may have been necessary in Tsarist Russia but was at odds with the traditions and growth of socialist parties in Western Europe, and the divisions thus engendered undoubtedly aided the growth of fascism, particularly in Germany.Trotsky understood this, but by then was powerless to do anything about it.However, his founding of the Fourth International in 1938 was a huge mistake, and helped to institutionalise practices of ultra leftism and sectarianism that are with us today.
    By the 70s the communist parties of Western Europe were moving in the right direction, but the new ‘Eurocommunism’ engendered further divisions, and by now the writing was on the wall.The final collapse of the USSR and its satellites (with, amazingly, virtually no violence) represented, it seems to me, above all a failure to make the transition to democracy, something the talented Gorbachev I think understood, but by then it was probably too late.
    Comment and debate on this most central of issues for all socialists is obviously appropriate this year, but is crucial anyway, as the urgent task of establishing socialism today is unlikely to be achieved without an understanding of why it failed in the past.

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