Monday, May 08, 2017

Russian Revolution anniversary

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, aka, the Bolshevik Revolution.

This clip from the movie Reds (1981) seems appropriate here, Reds Internationale:

(Note for American readers: Prior to the 2000 Presidential election, "reds" in the American political vocabulary meant Communists, not Republicans.)

The journalistic reflections and puff pieces on it seem to be trickling out at a slower pace than I expected. Which is just as well, I suppose, because a large portion of them will be superficial or more misleading than helpful in understanding real history.

China Miéville in Why does the Russian revolution matter? Guardian 05/06/2017 emphasizes the nature of the Russian Revolution as a break in the established assumptions of of the time:

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.”
In the current climate of opinion in the United States, just the fact that he admits to having Russian friends and talking to them would mark him as a suspicious person in the eyes of corporate Democrats! Except (maybe) for those also doing business in Russia.

He deals with the issue of "Stalinism," which for most people in the West seems to be simply a curse word used to condemn Russia and Russians generally while asserting the superiority of the West over the barbarians.

It's a fascinating subject with no small amounts of horror involved.

I tend to tiptoe around it because of its complexity, which contrasts to its use as a simple conjuring word, and because there are endless potential ideological, political and moral pitfalls in anything someone says about it.

But Miéville is right in observing that the process of how the Soviet Union developed cannot be reduced to a condemnation of the party purges or the level of state terror that developed in the 1930s. In the case of polemics over the Bolshevik Revolution, Miéville does a remarkably good job of summarizing them in three paragraphs:

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. [I.e., those who want to condemn the October Revolution as some variation of Evil Incarnate.] 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?
The number of variations on those themes is about as numerous as the millions of people who have engaged with them at some level over the last century.

One aspect of the period of Stalinism was the alliance of the Soviet Union with the United States and Britain in the war against Hitler Germany. This wartime propaganda film by Frank Capra was widely viewed in the US during the war, Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (1943) US National Archives :

Miéville offers this following helpful perspective, as well:

The revolution also matters because it was ... 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.
The only thing I'll add here is that I view it as essential to understand the Russian Revolution in the context of the First World War.

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