Why does the Russian revolution matter?
One hundred years ago, Lenin’s Bolshevik uprising overturned centuries of feudalism in Russia. But what does it mean for the world today?
Besides anything else, the socialist uprising in Russia in October 1917 is an extraordinary story. The culmination of the transformative months of that year, beginning with February and the abrupt popular overthrow of tsar Nicholas II and his regime, it’s all intrigue and violence and loyalty and treachery and courage.
But what of that prevailing sense that these giant events occurred worlds away and eras ago? Since 1989 and the downfall of Stalinism, mainstream culture has consigned the revolution to the tomb and celebrated its interment – thereby concurring with the spurious claim of those sclerotic, despotic regimes draping themselves in its mantle that they represent something other than the revolution’s defeat. Are these giant events now just baleful warnings? Something else? Does the revolution even matter?
It matters. Because things were different once. Why could they not be again? Even as someone fascinated and inspired by the Russian revolution, of which this year is the centenary, when I am asked why it still matters, what comes to me first is hesitation. A silence. But as well as words, a key to understanding October 1917 is a certain wordlessness.
We may know in our marrow that it matters, but it feels defensive, sententious, dogmatic to glibly “explain” the revolution’s “relevance”: a too-quick-off-the-mark propensity to “explain” everything is not a problem of the left alone, but it’s particularly galling when coming from radicals committed, at least in principle, to rubbing history against the grain, counter-narratives, the questioning of received opinions, including their own. (One salutary impact of recent extraordinary political upsets – Corbyn, Sanders, Trump, the French presidential election, with more to come – has been the carnage of political givens, the humbling of the know-it-all.)
In Russia, Putin’s state knows that the revolution matters, which puts it in an odd position. Committed to capitalism (gangster capitalism is still capitalism), it can hardly pitch itself as an inheritor of an uprising against that system: at the same time, official and semi-official nostalgia for the symbolic bric-a-brac of Great Russia, including that of Stalinist vintage, precludes banishing the memory. It risks being, as historian Boris Kolonitsky has put it, “a very unpredictable past”.
On a recent trip to St Petersburg, I asked Russian friends how the government would negotiate that, if it had to. Would it remember the centenary with celebration or anathema? “They will say there was a struggle,” I was told, “and that eventually, Russia won.”
Another of the revolution’s many tragedies: its pertinence asserted while its substance is evacuated. A vision of global emancipation deployed as one warble in a long chauvinist blare.
In one sense it’s uncontroversial that 1917 matters. After all, it is recent history, and there’s no arena of the modern world not touched by its shadow. Not only in the social democratic parties, shaped in opposition to revolutionary approaches, and their opponents of course, but at the grand scale of geopolitics, where the world’s patterns of allegiance and rivalry and the states that make up the system bear the clear traces of the revolution, its degeneration and decades of standoff. Equally, a long way from the austere realms of statecraft, the Russian avant-garde artists Malevich, Popova, Rodchenko and others remain inextricable from the revolution that so many of them embraced.
Their influence is incalculable: the cultural critic Owen Hatherley calls constructivism “probably the most intensive and creative art and architectural movement of the 20th century”, which influenced or anticipated “abstraction, pop art, op art, minimalism, abstract expressionism, the graphic style of punk and post-punk … brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech and deconstructivism”. We can trace the revolution in cinema and sociology, theatre and theology, realpolitik and fashion. So of course the revolution matters. As Lenin may or may not have said: “Everything is related to everything else.”
But here comes hesitation again, a sense that this approach, vital as it is, is to orbit rather than interrogate the fundamental issue. Why, to put it another way, does the discussion make people angry?
China Mieville: 'Without hope there's no drive to overturn an ugly world.' Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
It has become commonplace to admit that history was more tenacious than Francis Fukuyama suggested, but this is, after all, still meant to be the post-Thatcher era of TINA – there is no alternative – in which but perhaps for a diminishing tinkering space, fundamentals are not to be challenged. To even moot a system predicated on something other than profit, of grassroots control, is supposed to provoke eye-rolling, despite the increasingly sadistic deployment of austerity. So it’s precisely as a vision of an alternative, and one that had the temerity, at the start, to be successful, to overthrow the un- or not-yet assailable, that October matters. That’s why there’s anger, on all sides, rather than mere exasperation or amusement. Because what’s at stake isn’t the interpretation just of history but of the present. The question of whether it had and has to be this way.
What is shared by most of those who are opposed to anything but regret for 1917 is the conviction that the later excrescence of Stalinism was the inevitable outcome of the revolution. Certainly this can be argued: for the most part, however, it is taken as more or less self-evident. Not that there’s anything approaching one monolithic anti- or pro-revolutionary perspective, which encompasses socialists of various stamps, liberals, conservatives, fascists and others.
Some may even consider the Bolsheviks misguided and tragic, though wicked and power hungry is more common. There is a pull towards a crude morality tale. One can disagree with, say, historian Orlando Figes’s conclusions without querying the seriousness of his research, but his assertion in A People’s Tragedy that “hatred and indifference to human suffering were to varying degrees ingrained in the minds of all the Bolshevik leaders” is simply absurd (and his disapproving fascination with their leather jackets curious).
On the other side, there are some true believers such as the minute and grotesque Stalin Society. For the most part, however, the question for those who find cause for celebration in the revolution is, from what date do we start mourning? If an emancipatory tradition was broken, when was the break? 1921? 1924? 1928? 1930? What combination of factors lies behind the degeneration? The carnage of the civil war? Allied interventions, including, enthusiastically, on the side of the antisemitic pogromists? The failure of revolutions in Europe?
What’s shared is a sense of rupture, of break and loss, where liberalism and the right see inevitability. “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning’,” wrote the dissident Bolshevik Victor Serge in 1937. “Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?”
That excellent quote has become something of a cliche of anti-Stalinist socialism. What sometimes escapes its enthusiasts is that Serge clears Bolshevism of inevitably leading to Stalinism, not of all responsibility. Any movement that avoids hagiography, that critically evaluates its own traditions, is healthy and confident. This means accounting not only for the civil war and the regime’s enforced isolation, the famine, the industrial and agricultural and social collapse, but the political degeneration within the Bolsheviks, too, in the parlous months and years after taking power.
Whatever the lessons and inspiration the revolution offers, one occasionally sees a foolish kind of cosplay in the refusal to gauge all this unflinchingly, and in the desire to treat Lenin’s party of 1917 as a paradigm for today. In the discussions of some radical groups, one can even discern the influence of the eccentric cadences and vocabulary of century-old translated socialist literature. This is not to allow the revolution to matter too much, but to matter for the wrong reasons. No such special pleading or fawning re-enactment is necessary: that isn’t fidelity. Whatever the particularities of Russia 1917, the revolution resonates now not only for the analytical insights it offers but as a horizon, the sheer fact, both bathetic and momentous, that things were other, it could be so again. That’s what connects to today’s indignities and violence and inequality and oppression and to what they bring forth, as in very different circumstances they did a century ago: an ache for a radical reconfiguration.
So to go back to the question: why does the revolution matter? Because of what was right about it, and what went wrong. It matters because it shows the necessity not only of hope but of appropriate pessimism, and the interrelation of the two. Without hope, that millennial drive, there’s no drive to overturn an ugly world. Without pessimism, a frank evaluation of the scale of difficulties, necessities can all too easily be recast as virtues.
Thus after Lenin’s death the party’s adoption of Stalin’s 1924 theory of “socialism in one country”. This overturned a long commitment to internationalism, the certainty that the Russian revolution could not survive in isolation. The failure of the European revolutions provoked this – it was a shift born of despair. But announcing, ultimately celebrating an autarchic socialism was a catastrophe. A hard-headed pessimism would have been less damaging than this bad hope.
The revolution also matters because it was, quite properly, millennial. Its opponents regularly charge socialism with being a religion. The claim, of course, is hypocritical: anti-communism is just as often infused with the cultish fervour of the exorcist. And more importantly, it’s no weakness that alongside and informing their analysis, the partisans of 1917 were driven by a utopian urge, the hunger for a new and better world, to become people capable of inhabiting it.
All these reasons are pertinent and crucial. And all together they remain inadequate. Still there’s that frozen moment, that sense of unsayable excess. Again and again, in the revolution’s aspirations, its apocalyptic circumstances, its mistakes and successes, words fail. They fail in the near-glossolalic letters sent by soldiers to the press as the year wore on, despairing that their February revolution had been apocalypse without renewal. They fail in the equivocal leaflets of the Bolsheviks of July 1917, when they struggled to restrain restive streets. They fail spectacularly when the party understood that its plea not to demonstrate on the streets, which they had already prepared for their paper, would be widely ignored. So late at night, to avoid embarrassment, the lines are simply cut and Pravda appears on 4 July with a blank white space in the centre of its front page.
This wasn’t the first printed silence on the Russian left. Almost 60 years before the revolution, the radical writer Nikolay Chernyshevsky published What Is to Be Done?, a long political novel with an immense impact on the socialist movement, especially on Lenin, who, in 1902, named his own seminal tract on organisation after the book. Chernyshevsky’s depiction of the hinge point, a fulcrum from history to future possibility, comprises in its entirety two rows of dots. Informed readers would understand that behind the extended ellipsis was revolution. Thus Chernyshevsky evaded the censor, but there’s something religious, too, eschatological, in this unwriting, from this atheist son of a priest. Apophatic theology is that which focuses on what cannot be said of God: an apophatic revolutionism, unashamed to go beyond words.
In Russia, Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando, “sentences are often left unfinished from doubt as how to best end them”. Of course this is a literary flourish, a common and unsustainable romanticised Russian essentialism. But even so, the formulation feels prophetic for this particular Russian story. Chernyshevsky’s dots describe the revolution itself. Pravda’s blank hole contains tactics. Unsayables are by no means all there is to this strange story, but they are central to it.
They are key to why it matters. Because that which we can’t speak we might experience, instead. Which is why with the hesitation to answer comes a yearning. Not to say but to do and be. Not to struggle and fail to explain or to speak an October, but to be part of one.
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville is published by Verso.