The Meaning of October by Neil Faulkner

 

Neil Faulkner’s A People’s History of the Russian Revolution argues that the Russian Revolution was an explosion of democracy and creativity, in which the the Russian people are the heroes. In this essay for the Pluto blog, Faulkner, working from historian Georges Lefebvre’s scholarship on the French Revolution, writes that in order to fully understand the vodka, blood, and gunpowder of the Russian Revolution, we must see it as a process, with October as its ‘supreme moment’.

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When Georges Lefebvre wrote his history of the French Revolution, he covered the entire period from 1789 to 1799 – that is, from the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon Bonaparte’s 18th Brumaire coup. The chronology might, in fact, be extended further, until 1814/15, since, in a very real sense, Napoleon represented the defence and the spread of the bourgeois revolution by military means. The revolutionary epoch only came to a definitive close at Waterloo.

Three distinct periods can be identified. The revolution was in the ascendant until ‘Year II’ and the establishment of the Jacobin dictatorship (1793-94). It was in retreat following the overthrow of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety in the 9th Thermidor coup and the subsequent establishment of the Directory (1795-99). It was then ‘fossilised’ under the rule of a military strongman – the original ‘Bonapartist’ – from 1799 to 1814/15.

Something similar might be said of the English Revolution. Its period of ascent culminated in Pride’s Purge, the trial and execution of Charles I, and the establishment of Army rule in the crisis of winter 1648/49. It then descended following the smashing of Leveller mutinies in spring 1649, and, when attempts to re-establish Parliamentary rule proved abortive, the strongman stepped in, with Cromwell becoming ‘Lord Protector of the Commonwealth’ in 1653. The revolutionary epoch, which had opened in 1640, did not really conclude until 1660.

In both of these great bourgeois revolutions, the experience of war was seminal. Counter-revolutionary war radicalised France in 1792-94 and England in 1648. Both the Jacobins and the Cromwellians were forced to reject compromise, mobilise popular forces, and enact emergency measures. The protracted and convoluted history of both revolutions was interwoven with the experience of war and a perception of mortal danger.

At first sight, the Russian Revolution october revvyappears quite different. In traditional accounts, the entire revolutionary process plays out in just eight months – between February and October 1917. Trotsky’s classic history has chiselled this framework into stone. A three-volume masterpiece, it divides the revolution into three phases: the February Revolution and the overthrow of Tsarism; the attempted counter-revolution of July/August 1917; and the October Revolution.

October becomes the earth-shaking climax of an immense eruption of elemental social forces from Russia’s depths. Red October becomes a sacred historical consummation. That which follows cannot but be anti-climax.

 

The contradictions of October

But in fact the revolutionary process had barely begun. And the grim truth is this: the workers state established by October – the most advanced political form in the world at the time – was resting on socio-economic foundations which made it an unsustainable aberration.

Lenin and Trotsky, the two principal leaders of the revolution, knew this. They knew that Russia’s small working class could maintain power only with the support of the people as a whole, that is, with the peasantry. And they knew that, because of Russia’s extreme economic backwardness, because of the poverty of Russian society, the workers state could endure, and the transition to socialism be made, only on the condition that the revolution spread to the advanced centres of European capitalism.

But the alliance with the peasants began to break down immediately. The economy had been pole-axed by Russia’s three years of war and revolution between 1914 and 1917. It was pole-axed again by a further three years of war against counter-revolutionary and foreign-interventionist armies (1918-21). By one estimate, Russian industrial output was down to about 15% of its 1914 level by the end of the Civil War.

This meant the towns had nothing to trade with the countryside. Not only was far less produced, but everything was needed for revolutionary defence – as the Red Army swelled to a force millions-strong. The peasants had supported the Bolsheviks because they wanted the land. Once they had it, they resisted the forced requisitioning of both the Red and the White armies, and when the Civil War ended, they hoarded their grain and concealed their stock, desperately clinging to the little they had, making nonsense of heady visions of ‘socialist transformation’.

octrevThe towns, starved of food and raw materials, struggled to recover. Economic growth, even after 1921, was painfully slow. The wider context, of course, was the failure of the world revolution, which had surged from 1917 until 1920, and then crashed back in a succession of defeats and finally ebbed away by the end of 1923. Isolated and impoverished, the revolutionary regime was transformed by the experience of civil war, economic collapse, peasant resistance, and the crushing deadweight of Russia’s chronic backwardness.

 

Revolution in retreat

This played out in a succession of crises and debates inside the revolutionary regime. The contradictions eventually destroyed it. In the ascendant from February 1917 to the winter of 1917/18, perhaps even to the summer of 1918, the revolution thereafter was in retreat, becoming more centralised, more bureaucratic, more authoritarian.

The milestones on this road – the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the breakdown of the revolutionary coalition with the Left SRs, the establishment of the Cheka (the security police), the banning of factions inside the party, the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt, the elevation of the party secretariat, and so on – are as much a part of the revolutionary process as the great events of 1917.

But note a critical contrast with the experience of the French and the English Revolutions. The Civil War, instead of radicalising the revolution, had the opposite effect. The Bolsheviks, already in power, were struggling against the odds to maintain a functioning workers state based on mass participatory assemblies (‘soviets’) as the essential socio-economic foundations for this disintegrated beneath them.

Lenin had, of course, foreseen it. Again and again he had argued that the Russian working class was one contingent in the world army of socialist revolution. At the Finland Station in April 1917, in his first speech to the Petrograd workers upon his return to Russia, he had hailed ‘the victorious Russian revolution’ but concluded:

Any day, if not today or tomorrow, the crash of the whole of European imperialism may come. The Russian Revolution, made by you, has begun it and opened a new epoch. Hail the world-wide socialist revolution. 

He returned to this theme repeatedly. ‘The final victory of socialism in a single country is … impossible,’ he told the Third Soviet Congress in January 1918. ‘Our contingent of workers and peasants which is upholding Soviet power is one of the contingents of the great world army.’ Two months later, he put the matter more starkly: ‘It is the absolute truth that without a German revolution, we are doomed.’

October was the supreme moment in a revolutionary process which opened in February 1917 and closed in the winter of 1927/28, when the Stalinist party-state bureaucracy destroyed Trotsky’s Left Opposition group to establish an unchallenged counter-revolutionary dictatorship.

To understand the Russian Revolution properly, we need to think of it as a ten-year process, just as Lefebvre conceived the French Revolution.

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A People’s History of the Russian Revolution by Neil Faulkner is published by Pluto Press and the Left Book Club, it is available to buy from Pluto.

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Neil Faulkner is a leading Marxist historian. A Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, he is the author of numerous books, including A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals (Pluto, 2013) and Lawrence of Arabia’s War (Yale, 2016). He appears regularly on TV and was a lead consultant on Sky Atlantic’s The British series.

High Culture in a ‘Bare Art’ World: The Politics of Direct Art Activism

Capitalist crisis does not begin within art, but art can reflect and amplify its effects, to positive and negative ends. Gregory Sholette, author of the new book Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism, examines the disjunct between declarations of art’s virtue and high moralism, with the political economy of the cultural sector, whilst outlining his term ‘Bare Art’: a denuding of art’s entanglement with capitalism.

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Image: The Illuminator and Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF) confronts the Guggenheim’s planned future museum in the autocratic kingdom of Abu Dhabi, UAE, where migrant labour exploitation has been condemned by human rights groups.

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‘Art is not a luxury, not an adornment of civilization. It is a necessity. It is one of the central purposes of civilization.’ Thus begins a recent article by David Rothkopf in the online edition of Foreign Policy magazine, a liberal-leaning policy organ of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of which Rothkopf is both the editor and CEO.  The op-ed goes on to explain that, ‘Artists lead in ways politicians, chief executives, or generals cannot. They enable us to explore the mysterious — deep within us and all around us,’ adding that ‘diplomats have found art and culture to be invaluable tools.’ But he also cautions the profound power of art is useful for political conquests including terrorist campaigns:

‘The Taliban blew up the ancient art of Afghanistan. The Islamic State did the same in Palmyra and across Syria and Iraq. Statues are toppled during revolutions. Art and artifacts that have become symbols of nations are seized or claimed almost as talismans that bring with them legitimacy or connections.’

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Thoughts on Antonio Gramsci by Michele Filippini

Antonio Gramsci died on the 27th April 1937, 80 years ago today. In this blog, Michele Filippini, author of Using Gramsci: A New Approach dissects the evolving function of Gramsci’s work, exploring the move from a historically conscious reading that shaped politics in practice, to the interdisciplinary appeal of the new theoretical impulse.

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Those who do not produce things (in the wide sense) cannot produce words.

Antonio Gramsci, 1912

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In 1987, Eric J. Hobsbawm wrote an article for the Italian journal Rinascita, informing readers that Antonio Gramsci was among ‘The 250 most cited authors in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index 1976–1983’. This ranking of famous names from the sixteenth century onwards, only included another four Italians: Giorgio Vasari, Giuseppe Verdi, Benedetto Croce and Umberto Eco. The publication date of the index is significant: Gramsci died on 27 April 1937, and as this citing indicates his fame was very much of a posthumous nature, beginning at the end of the Second World War with the publication of the thematic volumes of his prison writings.

So, what happened during the thirty-year period to transform a leading political figure, the Secretary of the Italian Communist Party, imprisoned by the Fascist regime, into a leading intellectual figure for the international left, but also a classic in political theory?

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The Marikana Massacre: The government that pulled the trigger and the workers who survived it

Revivifying what are only recent memories of massacres by the state during the apartheid era, the Marikana massacre occurred on 16th August 2012, when policemen shot down 112 striking mineworkers, killing 34. Resistance by the ANC and the press to label the incident a massacre (‘Marikana shootings’ was the preferred terminology) at once exposed the easy analogy between Marikana and previous mass shootings at Sharpeville or Soweto, the fraughtness of South Africa’s difficult reckoning with its past, and how violence and the covering up of violence remains an intrinsic part of South Africa’s political structures and institutions.

Luke Sinwell, co-author of The Spirit of Marikana  a fascinating recent history of post-Apartheid South Africa, emphasising the crucial role of workers in changing history – has written here about the fight for justice by the workers that survived the massacre and the prosecution of 72 police for their role in the events.

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The recent decision taken by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) to prosecute 72 police for their role in the events related to South Africa’s Marikana massacre is welcome, but it may obscure the truth that the African National Congress (ANC) government pulled the trigger. The Sprit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism tells the story of the agency of those workers who survived it.

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Israel, Migrants and the right to nationhood

Mya Guarnieri Jaradat’s new book, The Unchosenexamines Israel’s harsh and worsening treatment of these newcomers and in doing so presents a fresh angle on the Israel-Palestine conflict, calling into question the state’s perennial justification for mistreatment of Palestinians: ‘national security’. As we stand witness to mass deportations and charter flights, Guarnieri Jaradat’s blog forces us to confront the exclusionary and dispassionate preconditions imposed on those seeking to belong to a nation.

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The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others, is a culmination of a decade’s worth of reporting on the lives of Southeast Asian migrant workers and African asylum seekers protest, Tel Aviv, Israel, 13.2.2014African asylum seekers in Israel. Studying these two groups of non-Jewish ‘others’ throws the Israeli claim that its treatment of Palestinians is predicated on security into harsh light; rather, it shows that Israel’s relationship with Palestinians and other non-Jews is predicated on racial separatism and couched in its overriding concern about maintaining a Jewish demographic majority. The treatment of non-Jews can be understood as a feature of Israel’s particular brand of settler
colonialism. Put best by Drs. Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini in their book, The Human Right to Dominate:

‘Not unlike other forms of settler colonialism, in the Israeli case colonial power is exerted also through the coloniser’s desire of appropriating the position of the native, of “going native.” … the coloniser’s nativeness can, so to speak, be achieved only through a twofold process, beginning with the dispossession of the colonised and followed by protecting the coloniser from a presumed invasion carried out by the colonised.’

The initial dispossession, happened in 1948 with the displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians. As for the ‘invasion’, many Israelis imagine this happening not militarily but demographically; they worry that they’ll be outnumbered. In recent years, the Israeli obsession with demographics—which Dr. Tally Kritzman-Amir, an Israeli lecturer and legal expert in immigration, refugee, and international law, refers to as the ‘fear of numbers’—has been extended beyond the indigenous population to non-Jews in general. Separation is one manifestation of this ‘fear of numbers.’

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Leila Khaled: The Poster Girl of Palestinian Militancy’ International Woman’s Day

We’re celebrating International Woman’s Day with ‘the poster girl of Palestinian militancy’ and subject of Sarah Irving’s biography: Leila Khaled. Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation tells the story of Khaled’s remarkable life as a female activist in a man’s movement. From hijacking planes, to her involvement in radical sects, Leila Khaled’s activism made her as era-defining as Che Guevara.

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When Leila Khaled hijacked her first plane, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was a left-wing organization with international links and the declared intention of winning the return of the Palestinian people to the lands they had left only 20 years before. This was the era of Che Guevara, killed in Bolivia just two years earlier, and of liberation struggles in South East Asia. The right of oppressed peoples to resist by armed means was discussed worldwide, and the heroes of these movements decorated the walls of student bedrooms and left-wing homes. The second wave of feminism was also breaking, adding another aspect to the environment in which news of this young female hijacker would be received.

In Leila’s Middle East home, Israel had just defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six Day War, humiliating the Arab world militarily and capturing the remaining Palestinian territories west of the River Jordan and north of the Sinai. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, including thousands of refugees from the initial establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, had been living under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, but were now subject to Israeli military occupation. Despite this, the world’s attention to the Palestinians themselves was minimal. They were seen by the West as a small, dispossessed refugee people, caught up in the hostility between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, and of little importance except as an excuse for aggression by Arab powers. Amongst the Palestinians of the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, discontent had been brewing. A resistance movement, which had been growing since the mid 1960s, had been further radicalized and popularized by the Six Day War and by Palestinians’ increasing suspicion of the hollow support voiced by Arab regimes. As Rosemary Sayigh, who lived in Lebanon throughout the 1970s, puts it:

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‘Feminism is for Everybody’ bell hooks for International Woman’s Day

bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody is the antidote to every ‘when’s international men’s day?!’ tweet. Designed to be read by all genders, this short, accessible introduction to feminist theory, by one of its liveliest and most influential practitioners, seeks to rescue feminism from esoterism and academic jargon; simplifying, arguing and convincing.

 

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Everywhere I go I proudly tell folks who want to know who I am and what I do that I am a writer, a feminist theorist, a cultural critic. I tell them I write about movies and popular culture, analysing the message in the medium. Most people find this exciting and want to know more. Everyone goes to movies, watches television, glances through magazines, and everyone has thoughts about the messages they receive, about the images they look at. It is easy for the diverse public I encounter to understand what I do as a cultural critic, to understand my passion for writing (lots of folks want to write, and do). But feminist theory — that’s the place where the questions stop. In- stead I tend to hear all about the evil of feminism and the bad feminists: how “they” hate men; how “they” want to go against nature — and god; how “they” are all lesbians; how “they” are taking all the jobs and making the world hard for white men, who do not stand a chance. When I ask these same folks about the feminist books or magazines they read, when I ask them about the feminist talks they have heard, about the feminist activists they know, they respond by let- ting me know that everything they know about feminism has come into their lives thirdhand, that they really have not come close enough to feminist movement to know what really happens, what it’s really about. Mostly they think feminism is a bunch of angry women who want to be like men. They do not even think about feminism as being about rights — about women gaining equal rights. When I talk about the feminism I know — up close and personal — they willingly listen, although when our conversations end, they are quick to tell me I am different, not like the “real” feminists who hate men, who are angry. I assure them I am as a real and as radical a feminist as one can be, and if they dare to come closer to feminism they will see it is not how they have imagined it.

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