October 1917: a noble, ambitious revolution
One hundred years on from the central event of the 20th century.
For the historian Eric Hobsbawm, not only was the Russian Revolution the central event of the 20th century, just as the French Revolution was to the previous century, but its impact was ‘far more profound’ and the ‘global repercussions’ much greater. Of course, it failed, disastrously, but even so it is hard to argue with this assessment. One hundred years later, however, as many commentators have noticed, there is little acknowledgement let alone celebration of those 10 days that shook the world.
‘It’s odd to find’, writes historian Sheila Fitzpatrick (no relation), ‘that our collective assessment of the Russian Revolution should now be more negative than it was during the Cold War’. Noting that even exhibitions of the art and culture of the revolution seem to attract condescension and condemnation, she asks: ‘Has sanctimoniousness become endemic in the world of Anglophone public intellectuals?’
It is welcome, therefore, that in his excellent October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, China Mieville has captured the way in which an anarchic popular upsurge was transformed into the successful seizure of state power by a revolutionary working-class party. As Mieville makes clear, there was nothing accidental or fortuitous about it. Although tumultuous events threw up the opening, it was a revolution that had been a long time in the pipeline. Unlike the French Revolution, it was planned, and not only did it succeed, but the Bolshevik party pioneered a model that was readily adaptable to other countries, even in the most backward regions. Just as the Bolsheviks inspired the masses around the world, they struck terror into the hearts of the ruling elites.
Nor has there been much celebration of the final implosion of the revolution’s successor, the Soviet Union, in the years between the breaching of the Berlin Wall in December 1989 and the tragi-comic events of 1991. In his study of ‘the short 20th century’, Hobsbawm concludes that ‘one of the ironies of this strange century’ was that the revolution not only failed to overthrow capitalism but actually saved it (1). It provided the West with an incentive to reform itself and, from the late 1920s and through the Cold War years, a vivid disincentive to advocates of state socialism in other countries.
The revolution took place in the weakest of the old European empires at the moment when the catastrophic impact of the First World War had pushed it to the brink of collapse. Emerging in a period of extreme crisis for the global capitalist order, the Soviet Union survived through most of the 20th century because of the continuing frailties and conflicts among the major Western powers.
As it turned out, this weakness of the system meant that the triumphalist mood among Western leaders after 1991 would be shortlived. Losing the negative example of the Soviet Union sharply exposed the difficulties of securing popular approval for the prevailing order, particularly after the financial crash of 2007/08. Now that the capitalist system’s ‘crisis of legitimacy’ has been officially acknowledged by both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May in this year’s party-conference season, there can be no mistaking the scale of the loss of confidence afflicting our political leaders. There is no stomach for gloating about how 1917 turned out.
As for what remains of the left in the West, it, too, has little appetite for the landmark event of the forward march of labour. And as for the Moscow regime of Vladimir Putin, it regards the Bolsheviks as an embarrassment.
Writing in the mid-1990s, Mick Hume, then editor of Living Marxism (the forerunner of spiked), appraised the consequences of the West’s victory in the Cold War. He described how this victory, achieved after several decades of often bitter conflict, at home as well as abroad, had been achieved at a heavy cost. He noted then that the crusade against socialism meant invalidating many of the ideas associated with any conception of human advance or social progress: ‘It is as though the difficulty of containing the subversive potential of the Russian Revolution of 1917 required the Western elites also to question retrospectively the values of the French Revolution of 1789.’ (2)
These values had been crucial to the consolidation of the capitalist system in Europe in the 19th century and to its continuing legitimacy in the 20th, and yet even today they continue to be undermined. Take two key liberal causes that developed from the French Revolution’s clarion call of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’: the commitments to democracy and to nationalism. It is striking that both these commitments have become increasingly questioned and disparaged in recent years, most notably in the aftermath of the vote for Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum.
In the 19th century, the nation emerged as the historical form and vehicle for the expression of individual and collective freedoms of people around the world. The nation state provided the framework for campaigns for causes such as the abolition of slavery, for trade-union rights, for the expansion of the suffrage (to include the working class and women), and for social welfare and equality.
Nationalism came to be associated, particularly during the later epoch of imperialism, with notions of racial superiority, chauvinism and militarism. This should not obscure the fact that the nationalist cause provided a focus for popular solidarity against absolutist monarchies and imperial dictatorships and for movements for self-determination among colonial peoples. As Benedict Anderson observed, nationalism is also associated with ‘natural ties’ of family and language and culture, of ‘love, solidarity and disinterestedness’ (3). For him, fraternity, the most neglected of the great triad of revolutionary principles, is the essence of the nationalist outlook. Nationalism may promote racism, fear and hatred; it may also ‘inspire love, self-sacrificing love’. He argues that it is fraternity that has made it possible, ‘over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die’ for what he describes as the ‘imaginary communities’ fostered by nationhood, and for the freedom they craved.
Another irony emerges on the centenary of October 1917. Individuals and movements formerly associated with the British left never historically evinced much interest in challenging the negative aspects of the nationalist outlook that were expressed in labour-movement support for racist immigration controls or military repression in Ireland and elsewhere. Yet now they join with the elites in decrying expressions of popular democracy and assertions of national sovereignty as populist and xenophobic.
‘Things changed once and they might do so again’ is China Mieville’s somewhat muted reflection on the significance of 1917 for today. Of course, the simple fact that it did at first succeed, that fundamental change was effected, should give people hope. Even when, within its first decade, it was clear to its best elements (around Leon Trotsky) that it had gone badly wrong, they did not give up hope, but strove to get it right without a second thought, and got on with it. Those currently moaning that we can’t organise an effective ambulance service in this country until Brexit is negotiated should take note.
Things might change again more quickly if we embrace the legacy of popular democracy and support for national liberation that was so forcefully expressed by the Bolsheviks. None of this was ever lost on those leading the capitalist order. They have never ceased to recognise the mortal threat that was born in October 1917.
The Bolshevik Revolution was ambitious and noble. The circumstances were not of their choosing, but in the midst of the chaos and slaughter of the First World War a small, disciplined group of men and women kept their nerve, took the opportunity, dispensed with a tottering regime and saw off the might of an imperialist onslaught. And even the logistic enormity of their achievement pales beside their vision. It was the first time in human history that a conscious attempt was made to step outside of history, to overturn the social and political order that dominated humanity and thwarted its progress, and to set humanity on a new course, with the best interests of all at its heart.
Michael Fitzpatrick is a retired GP, and the author of Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, by China Mieville, is published by Verso. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Picture by: Getty Images. Circa 1917: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin addressing the crowds during the Russian Revolution.
(1) Age of Extremes: The Short 20th Century, 1914-1991, by Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Joseph, 1994.
(2) The Point is to Change it: A Manifesto for a World Fit for People, by Mick Hume, Junius, 1996.
(3) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, by Benedict Anderson, Verso 2006.