this article first appeared in the Morning Star, on 11 March 1917.
CHRISTINE LINDEY takes issue with the reactionary agenda of an exhibition of marvellous Russian revolutionary art
First published in the Morning Star on March 7th 2017
MARCH 8 was designated International Women’s Day in 1910 by the German communist Clara Zetkin to promote equal rights for women.
Women’s Day in 1917 was a momentous occasion.
Women from the factories thundered onto the streets of Petrograd. They surged up the Nevsky Prospekt and charged over the Neva bridges, a mass of working women demanding bread for their families. Their banners and placards thrust high, proclaiming: “Our children are starving,” “Give us bread now,” “We want bread.” Revolutionary fervour filled the air, and women were at the heart of it.
The New Factory of the Eccentric Actor will be celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 at the Marx Memorial Library at 7.30pm with an evening of readings, poetry, songs, and a few surprises, plus tea and cakes. The New Factory will return to the library on May 12 at 7.30 for a performance of Blue Blouse, a tribute to the heroes of the Blue Blouse Movement.
Blue Blouse was founded in 1923 by Boris Yuzhanin an instructor at the Moscow Journalism Institute, and named after the factory workers’ overalls. It was often described as a “Living Newspaper.”
This is how the Blue Blouse defined itself: “Blue Blouse is a form of agitation, a topical theatre born of the revolution, a montage of political and general phenomena presented from the point of view of the class ideology of the proletariat.
Blue blouse is a juicy hard-hitting and mobile theatre performing under any conditions.”
This was a period of astounding ambition and optimism in the arts. Revolutionary zeal inspired artists of all kinds to seize the moment and create new forms, and the Blue Blouse embodied this spirit.
Exciting, informative and stimulating, the role of the Blue Blouse was to prepare audiences for “the new social conditions being developed in the Soviet Union.”
The Blue Blouse was a living newspaper at a time of widespread illiteracy, a popular news review that included everything from topical issues, sport, dance, poetry, magic tricks, acrobatics and sketches, to tableau vivant and scenes from history.
It’s 1924 as a covered train pulls into the station at Odessa. An eclectic group of people spill onto the icy platform, one carries an accordion, another a large roll of canvas. A tall man in a battered overcoat is holding up a sign saying “Blue Blouse.” The troupe hurry along to meet him — “Welcome to Odessa, I am here to escort you to the Krasnaya Canteen for your performance tonight. A hot meal is waiting for you.” A loud cheer goes up and the Blue Blouse collective disappear into the dusk.
Tomorrow they will be back on the train criss-crossing the countryside to spread the word of the revolution. Wherever the Blue Blouse went, it left not only enduring memories, but also new groups.
At the height of its popularity there were said to be 5,000 collectives with 100,000 members. They thrived between 1923 and 1927, after which they were subsumed by the Workers Youth Theatre.
First published in the Morning Star on Saturday/Sunday December 31-January 1 2016/17
IN THIS centenary year of the Russian Revolution books will be published, op-eds written and programmes broadcast about the dramatic events of 1917 and their impact on the 20th century.
In the mainstream media few are likely to look at whether the “10 days that shook the world,” when Lenin led the first successful socialist revolution, have helped shape the planet we live on today, or whether they retain the power to shake the world again in years to come.
The revolution will be presented as history — and socialist and communist ideas as done and dusted, dead and buried. How many of us have heard that socialism “doesn’t work,” that it was tried in Russia and it failed?
Of course, the revolution is part of history and it did shape the 20th century. The great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm even defined his “short 20th century” as 1914-1991, a period almost coterminous with the existence of the Soviet state.
The great events of the century all took place in the context of the global struggle between socialism and capitalism.
The rise of fascism was a ruling-class response to the threat of social revolution and the defeat of the nazis would not have been possible without the heroic sacrifices made by communists — many of them soldiers in the Red Army, which “tore the guts out of the nazi war machine,” to quote Winston Churchill — but also partisans and resistance fighters in every corner of occupied Europe.
The latter part of the century is held up in the text books as dominated by the “cold war,” supposedly between the democratic West and the wicked and sinister communists.
A wider view, encompassing the titanic Third World battles against colonialism, paints a more complex picture.
The contributions of communists were again key, both as fighters in the front line of liberation struggles in China, Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa and many other countries. And the Soviet-led socialist camp was also a supporter of anti-colonial movements the world over, providing everything from diplomatic backing at the UN to cash and arms when needed.
To many Africans, Asians and Latin Americans, the Soviet Union was a friend and ally against domination and exploitation by the so-called “free world.”
Much of this history is hidden. Children in our schools are not taught about the millions of victims of British imperialism during the Bengal famine, the “Malayan emergency” or the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.
To do so would undermine the myth of a benevolent, enlightened West playing the role of history’s good guys, standing up to the nefarious Reds.
Communists, liberals charge to this day, were guilty of terrible atrocities in Russia, China and elsewhere and there is no point in seeking to defend the indefensible when revolutionary governments had innocent blood on their hands.
But that is not the whole story of revolutions inspired by that of 1917, which also won tremendous achievements in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, spreading education and literacy to populations that were previously illiterate and massively extending life expectancy through modern sanitation and free healthcare.
That’s not even mentioning the extraordinary cultural and scientific advances made in the Soviet Union, which sent the first human being into space.
The impact of the revolution was felt way beyond the socialist countries, who helped found the United Nations and define human rights by pushing for recognition of a universal right to shelter and food, for example, against opposition from the capitalist West.
Britain’s National Health Service, offering healthcare to all free at the point of use, owes much to the inspiration of free healthcare in the Soviet Union, as does the welfare safety net put in place by the Labour government of 1945-51.
Since the triumph of neoliberal ideologies in Britain and the United States in the 1980s, we have seen a mammoth effort to undermine and dismantle our social security system, one which continues in the privatisation of our NHS and the cruel and unusual punishment meted out to disabled people in this country today.
The social-democratic compromise of the postwar period was always vulnerable; the interests of working people and the super-rich few who own the banks and the big businesses are simply not compatible. The collapse of socialism in eastern Europe removed the constant leftward pressure that kept social democracy in western Europe alive.
We have since seen a ruthless drive to marketise every service and exploit every natural, human and social resource beyond remotely sustainable levels — capitalism, as Karl Marx once put it, weeping from every pore with blood and dirt.
If we don’t like the poverty and war that are synonymous with modern capitalism, we might think again whether the dismissers who say the Russian Revolution “failed” are right.
Certainly socialism came to an end in the Soviet countries in 1991 and there was a capitalist restoration. Yet, though the kings returned to Britain and France after their revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, the liberating ideas those upheavals unleashed were not defeated but have borne fruit around the world ever since.
The overwhelming rejection of a tired, corrupt and out-of-touch Establishment we are seeing now in this country, across Europe and in the United States, suggests that capitalism is not delivering and that it can again be challenged.
Revolutions don’t proceed according to instruction manuals and the events of that October night in Russia a hundred years ago are not going to be replicated in London or Washington. But the experiences of the world’s first socialist country are of huge and continuing relevance.
The Morning Star is proud to be part of the Russian Revolution Centenary Committee and, over the coming year, we hope to do our bit in discovering what that revolution meant, and still means, for the prospects of a world free of hatred, oppression and exploitation — one in which humans are never objects to be used but people whose amazing potential has the time and space to flourish.
Ben Chacko is editor of the Morning Star.
First published in the Morning Star on Saturday/Sunday December 31-January 1 2016/17
CHRISTINE LINDEY explains how the 1917 Russian Revolution ignited unprecedented artistic transformations which made a real difference in people’s lives
“IN THE land of the Soviets every kitchen maid must be able to rule the state,” said Lenin and the arts were an intrinsic part of the Bolshevik revolution’s attempt to achieve this momentous step forward.
But it was no mean task. For a population — 80 per cent of whom were illiterate — serfdom, abolished in 1862-4, was still within living memory.
And it was by expressing the revolution’s aims through imagination, emotion, humour and joy, that the arts opened the people’s minds and boosted their self-confidence to seize power.
How best to do this was hotly debated. Rejecting unique works of art as self-indulgent bourgeois commodities, some artists heeded the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s dictum that “the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes.”
Turning to agit-prop — agitation and propaganda — they created ephemeral posters and street pageants and decorations to educate and enthuse support for the revolution.
Thus in 1920 artists including Nathan Altman organised the ambitious re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace, involving decorated buildings, factory sirens and 2,000 Petrograd proletarians. Perhaps a few kitchen maids were among them.
Trains were transformed into “moving posters,” with vivid images and slogans painted on them, and were filled with travelling theatre companies, film shows, books and literacy classes to bring socialism to the countryside.
Such actions were possible because the worker state became patron of the arts. Recognising the importance of culture, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Minister for Enlightenment, immediately revolutionised cultural institutions.
The arts would now serve the people, not the aristocracy or bourgeoisie.The art market was abolished, museums nationalised and their contents reorganised and reinterpreted from a working class perspective.
Two radical artists — washerwoman’s son Alexander Rodchenko and bourgeois ex-lawyer Wassily Kandinsky — jointly founded 22 new museums and purchased contemporary art for the young state. Museums worldwide still envy these collections.
The 19th-century progressive intelligentsia had already challenged tsarist Russia’s near mediaeval socio-political conditions and their expression through equally polarised aesthetics.
The aristocracy favoured Western academic art as a mark of their superior sophistication, while denigrating their serfs’ woodcut prints (luboks), icons, carvings and embroideries as “crude” and “primitive.”
But the early avant garde upturned these aesthetic criteria. Arguing that photography liberated them from academic art’s fussy illusionism, they were inspired by the flat shapes, bold colours and outlines through which folk art succinctly expressed visible and inner worlds.
So, after 1917, lubok-inspired revolutionary posters, illustrations and textiles, energising peasants and workers by affirming their own, hitherto denigrated, cultural traditions.
But artists also embraced the social progress promised by industrialisation and the surge in the recent technological inventions — film, recorded sound, telephones, flying machines and motor cars.
Their forms and functions symbolised the speed, dynamism and energy of modernity and of the revolution.
As art education was reorganised, the Marxist Vladimir Tatlin headed the innovatory VKhUTEMAS, the technical workshops in a Moscow art school which influenced the globally influential German craft and fine art Bauhaus movement from 1919 to 1931 and beyond.
Inspired by the machine age, VKhUTEMAS dispensed with traditional art to investigate forms, spatial organisation, materials and processes as a basis for producing cheap mass-produced goods, accessible to all.
Rejecting the bourgeois concept of the artist as individual male genius, they defined themselves as classless, self-effacing “constructivists,” collectively constructing the revolution alongside other workers, regardless of gender.
Lyubov Popova’s transportable theatre, Rodchenko’s posters and Varvara Stepanova’s textiles shared the abstracted forms of modernity — the circles of factory cogs and wheels, electricity’s lightning zig-zags or the soaring grace of flying machines.
At Vitebsk Art Academy Kazimir Malevich founded UNOVIS, a group in which students and teachers collaborated in explorations of the essence of form and volume to create futuristic architectural models as prototypes to inspire designers, engineers and architects. And they did.
Marc Chagall, painter of poetic evocations of Jewish village life and art commissar of his native province, founded the Vitebsk academy during the revolution and Lunacharsky’s pluralist aesthetic policies enabled Malevich, pioneer of geometric abstraction, to teach in the same academy.
Similarly Alexander Deineka, who argued for realist paintings to represent the revolution and workers’ lives, taught in the same Moscow institution as Tatlin, renowned for his soaring design for a monument to the Third International (1919-20).
During the hardships of war communism (1917-22) artists concentrated on speculative research but some of these reached fruition afterwards.
Kitchen maids sported dresses printed with modernist motifs celebrating technology and socialism. Buildings such as Moisei Ginzburg’s Narkomfin Communal House of 1930, incorporated communal facilities such as laundries, dining halls, kitchens and reading rooms.
Inspired by UNOVIS, its horizontal banded windows sweep across the facade, providing maximum light and air, behind wide, heated corridors in which tenants could interact.
Together with parallel developments in the other arts, the visual arts made real differences to people’s lives. In the coming centenary year of the 1917 revolution, numerous exhibitions will repeat the neoliberal mantra “great art, shame about the politics,” perpetuated since the 1920s.
In fact, it was great politics which generated such a blossoming of the arts
We have compiled a short bibliography of books and texts about the Russian Revolution. This is not an exhaustive list but an introduction to the subject, aimed at non-specialist readers as well those already familiar with the topic. The list, which inevitably reflects different perspectives on those momentous events, will be updated over time.
If you have any recommended texts you would like to see added, don't hesitate to contact us.
Eye Witness Reports
Ten Days that Shook the World, John Reed
From July to October, from “My Life”, Leon Trotsky
The October Days, from Krupskaya’s “Reminiscences of Lenin”
History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky
The Years of Revolution, from Alexandra Kollontai’s autobiography
Contemporary accounts of the Russian Revolution
The Russian Revolution, Karl Kautsky November-December 1917
The Russian Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg 1918
Capitalist Europe and Socialist Russia , Morgan Philips Price November 1918
The Russian Revolution and the Soviet Government, Peter Kropotkin April 1919
Third Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Georgi Dimitrov 3 November 1920
The Paths of the Russian Revolution, Karl Radek 1922
Lessons of October, Leon Trotsky 1924
Year One of the Russian Revolution, Victor Serge 1925-1928
‘Can We Write the History of the Russian Revolution’ in On History, London, 1997, pp.241-52, Eric Hobsbawm (The paper was first presented as the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture at the London School Of Economics on December 3, 1996)
History of Soviet Russia, E H Carr (especially vols 1 to 3)
The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin, 1917-1929, E. H. Carr (and see: http://www.historytoday.com/edward-acton/russian-revolution-lenin-stalin-1917-1929#sthash.qWLwpVUh.dpuf)
The Russian Revolution, Sheila Fitzpatrick
Rethinking the Russian Revolution, Edward Acton
History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky (earlier writings will be easier to include than later ones)
The Russian Revolution, W.H.Chamberlin
A History of the U.S.S.R. , Andrew Rothstein
Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Christopher Hill
Trade Unions and the Russian Revolution
Little Moscows: working-class politics in inter-war Britain (1980), Stuart Macintyre
‘Red Strongholds Between the Wars’, Marxism Today, March, 1979, S. Macintyre
Soldiers Strikes of 1919, Andrew Rothstein
The Scottish Miners, 1874-1939, vol. 2: trade unions and politics (2000), Alan Campbell
‘British Labour and Soviet Russia, 1920’, English Historical Review, 109, 432, 1994, Stephen White
Lenin, The State and Revolution, April Theses etc
The October Revolution and internationalism: 1917 – 2017
By John Foster
‘Capital is an international force. To vanquish it, an international workers' alliance, an international workers' brotherhood, is needed. We are opposed to national enmity and discord, to national exclusiveness. We are internationalists.’
Peace, Bread and Land
‘Peace, Bread and Land’ was the slogan of the October Revolution. On the day following the overthrow of the Provisional Government the All-Russia Congress of Soviets adopted its Decree on Peace. This ‘Appeal to the Peoples and Governments of the Belligerent Countries’ called for immediate negotiations for a ‘just, democratic peace without annexations’. It declared all secret treaties null and void. It offered an immediate three month armistice. The Appeal ended with a call to the working people of the three foremost capitalist countries, Germany, France and Britain: ‘the workers of these countries will understand the duty that now rests with them of rescuing mankind from the horrors of war’ and linked this fight for peace, as the October Revolution itself had done, to emancipation from ‘all forms of slavery and exploitation’.
War: defensive or imperialist ?
In doing so the Decree on Peace highlighted the key nature of the October Revolution: the way it combined the struggle against capitalism with that for genuine socialist internationalism.
At the onset of war in 1914 socialist internationalism had been betrayed. In 1912 the Socialist International, which united socialist parties across Europe and the world, had unanimously adopted a manifesto which bound the socialist parties of all countries to use their industrial power to halt preparations for war. However, when war came, the great majority of socialist parties failed to do so and instead ended up supporting their own government’s war mobilisation. Each accepted the definition of the war as laid down by their own ruling class as defensive and legitimate. This happened in Germany, Britain, Austria, Italy and, eventually, in France.
Almost alone, Russia’s Bolsheviks did not. Their leader, Lenin, condemned the war as imperialist, fought in the interests of the ruling classes of each country and deriving directly from the nature of the capitalist system in its monopoly phase.
Internationalism begins at home
Internationalism, Lenin argued, was not an abstract, general aspiration. In his book Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism he sought to demonstrate that capitalism in its most developed, monopoly phase, was now inherently imperialist and aggressive. Its own internal contradictions meant that each leading capitalist nation had to grab external territories for their resources and markets. Opposing capitalism could not be waged simply at the economic level. It meant opposing the politics of the ruling class, exposing how the capitalist system demanded the subjugation of other peoples. Workers had therefore to oppose all imperialist wars – not in general but directly in their own countries and link this opposition to the struggle against the capitalist system. To do otherwise, to support the propaganda of their rulers, would disarm the working class movement and subordinate it to the ideology of the ruling class. Internationalism had to start at home.
In Russia it was the growing opposition to war that provided the spark for the October revolution. In autumn 1917 the Soviets, the mass organisations created in the wake of the first February Revolution, were finally won to back the slogan Peace, Bread and Land. Up to that point the right-wing socialists, who had been carrying on the war in alliance the representatives of Russian big business, had controlled the Soviets. Now they were defeated by the Bolsheviks and their allies. The slogan of All Power to the Soviets meant a government that would end the war. That was why its first act was the Decree on Peace and why it also immediately published the Tsarist secret treaties to expose the war’s imperialist character: Russia had sought to grab Constantinople; Britain and France the oil resources of the Middle East.
Opposing war and imperialism brings revolutionary change
The call for peace by Russian workers led directly to action by workers elsewhere – action that hitherto had not taken place. Within eight weeks 400,000 workers had struck work to demand an end to the war in Germany. A similar number took strike action in Austria. In the Adriatic Austrian Navy mutinied and attempted to establish Workers and Soldiers Councils. Later mass strikes against the war took place in France and Italy. On Clydeside 90,000 workers defied the ban on strike action on May Day 1918 to demand solidarity with the Soviet Revolution. Ultimately it was the mutiny by German sailors and the strikes in Berlin that brought the war to a close.
By 1918 this bringing together of the fight for socialism and that against imperialism was transforming the nature of the working class movement across Europe. Workers were moving beyond immediate reforms to demand social system change. In Hungary and Finland Soviet governments were established. In Germany and Austria workers challenged for political power. The pre-existing Socialist International split as the right-wing pro-war socialists now became the front-line of defence for the old order, heading governments in Austria, Germany, Poland and very shortly in Britain too. The Third International united the newly formed Communist Parties. It brought together all those socialists who opposed the imperialism of their own ruling class and were committed to social system change, to socialist revolution.
Internationalism today must also challenge capitalism and imperialism
Today imperialism is different in its outward form. Empires and colonies have long gone. Instead they have been replaced by the soft power of trade treaties, international organisations for the provision of credit and regional economic blocs – all of which lay down rules which subject the weakest to the strongest, require conformity to the needs of the (imperialist dominated) market and bar progress towards socialism. Those who refuse to comply are subject to ‘soft power’ reprisals and ultimately war. As in 1917, there remain those in the working class movement who still define internationalism in terms of these structures that serve imperialism.
The lesson of the October Revolution is that real internationalism demands that working people challenge, especially in the main capitalist countries, their own ruling class and the wider system that sustains oppression and exploitation across the world.