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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Antonio Gramsci 80th Anniversary Reading List

Antonio Gramsci can be regarded as one of the most significant Marxists of the twentieth century who merits inclusion in any register of classical social theorists. A founding gramsci 1member of the Italian Communist Party, he was arrested by Mussolini’s fascist police and spent 11 years in prison, where, in spite of rapidly deteriorating health, he wrote the three volume essay collection known as The Prison Notebooks. He died 80 years ago today due to health complications he suffered during his detention.

Gramsci’s theorising of cultural hegemony continues to have a significant bearing on Marxism, but in pointing to a singular achievement we must not underestimate the impact of his writings on education, civil society, crisis, the individual and ideology. A Gramscian dialectic can be applied to disciplines across the social sciences and the humanities and the books chosen here attest to this interdisciplinarity. Each of the five titles chosen for our Gramsci Reading List recognise the need for an open-minded approach to his work, necessary to capture the multiple branching out of his thought and a practical interest in understanding the here and now of contemporary events.

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Using Gramsci: A New Approach by Michele Filippini

To quote Stuart Hall, ‘Gramsci gives us, not the tools with which to sFilippini T02985olve the puzzle, but the means with which to ask the right kinds of questions’. This book is something of a ‘how-to’ for Gramsci’s thought, to read Gramsci is not always easy, he plunges into debates now obscure and engages in a range of topics that at first seem unrelated, here, his thinking is artfully crystallised by Michele Filippini, making this book perfect for scholars, as well as those new to his work.

Working from the original Italian texts, Filippini also examines the more traditional areas of Gramsci’s thought, including hegemony, organic intellectuals and civil society, and in doing so proposes a new approach to one the most popular and relevant thinkers of the 20th Century.

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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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International Women’s Day Reading List

From feminist theory, to history and contemporary politics, these are some of Pluto’s best books, old and new, that celebrate radical women.

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Revolutionary Learning: Marxism, Feminism and Knowledge by Sara Carpenter and Shahrzad Mojab Carpenter T03129

Revolutionary Learning by Sara Carpenter and Shahrzad Mojab explores the Marxist and feminist theorisation of knowledge production and learning. From an explicitly feminist perspective, the authors reconsider the contributions of Marx, Gramsci and Freire to educational theory, expanding Marxist analyses of education by considering it in relation to patriarchal and imperialist capitalism.  The reproductive nature of institutions is revealed through an ethnography of schools and pushed further by the authors who go on to examine how education and consciousness connects with the broader environment of public policy, civil society, the market, and other instruments of ‘public pedagogy.’

The book’s use of work by feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonial scholars means it will have significant implications for critical education scholarship, but its use value extends beyond educational praxis; providing the tools dissect, theorize, resist and transform capitalist social relations.

 

Captive Revolution: Palestinian Women’s Anti-Colonial Struggle within the Israeli Prison System by Nahla AbdoAbdo T02851

Throughout the world, women have played a part in struggles against colonialism, imperialism and other forms of oppression, but their vital contributions to revolutions, national liberation and anti-colonial resistance are rarely chronicled.

Nahla Abdo’s Captive Revolution seeks to break the silence on Palestinian women political detainees. Based on stories of the women themselves, as well as her own experiences as a former political prisoner, Abdo draws on a wealth of oral history and primary research in order to analyse their anti-colonial struggle, their agency and their appalling treatment as political detainees. Through crucial comparisons between the experiences of female political detainees in other conflict; a history of female activism emerges.

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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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Whose revolution? Neil Faulker on the centenary of the October 1917 revolution

In this new essay, Neil Faulkner, author of the newly published, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, embarks on a myth-busting mission, to right the wrongs that history teaching and writing has accorded to our historical understanding of the Russian Revolution.

Team Stalin? Team Trotsky ? Who does the Russian Revolution belong to?

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The gap between the organised Left and street protest grows ever wider. This is manifest in the failure to connect the discourse around the centenary of the Russian Revolution – an icon and bastion of the Old Left – with the recent Women’s March and Stomp Trump Protests – a lure for young newcomers, fresh to the struggle.faulkner-t03173

One of the main reasons this failure to connect one popular struggle with another is the way in which the Russian Revolution – the most misunderstood event in modern history – has long been caricatured. Essentially, it is conceived as the work of a brilliant leader (Lenin), an underground party (the Bolsheviks), and a carefully managed, military-style coup (the October Insurrection). In my book, A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, I seek to disprove this: arguing that the Russian Revolution was, above all, an explosion of mass democracy and self-activity from below.

Returning to the caricature, it has been the central thread that runs through a variety of historiographies on the Russian Revolution. Most recently, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, writing in that veritable quarry of political insight, the London Evening Standard, provides an example of the right-wing, ‘bourgeois’ version, largely dominant in mainstream academic and popular writing these days:

‘It is naïve (or maybe too early) to compare the disaffection of the Brexit or Trump elections with the violence, class war, and secret-police terror of the great revolutions, French, Russian, or Iranian. The real parallels today lie in methods and style – the cold powerbroking and political culture of Lenin, Stalin, and their successors: on the one hand, the cult of ruthless power; on the other, the culture of disinformation to delegitimise democracy, truth, and other liberal hypocricies.’

Poor old Lenin! He’s clearly going to have to weather a tough centenary year, he is even to blame for Trump.

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