Reviewing BBC Radio 4’s coverage of the Russian revolution

rs21 is publishing a series of pieces over the coming weeks to explore the inspiring events and conflicted legacy of the Russian Revolution, which took place over a series of some weeks precisely 100 years ago, in 1917.

Martin Crook analyses the presentation of the Russian revolution by the BBC, discussing the various progressive movements that sprang from it while questioning the accuracy of a review that blames the revolution for the sins of Stalinism.

The Bolshevik by Boris Kustodiev, 1920

As part of BBC Radio 4’s season of programmes to commemorate the centenary of the Russian revolution, Revolution in Ideas attempts the prodigious task of examining the impact those cataclysmic events had on the intellectual and cultural landscape. The programme opens with the contributors both acknowledging the beacon of hope it represented to the world’s poor and dispossessed, and trotting out perhaps the inevitable injunction that utopias are dangerous. Nevertheless, the narrator reminds us that we still live in the shadow of the social experiment conducted a hundred years ago.

Despite its shortcomings (more on that later), the programme steers us on a dizzying and engrossing journey of the volcanic influence the revolution had on the arts and sciences. We are reminded of the radical rethink those heady days forced on the collective consciousness regarding race, gender relations, the family, sexuality, religion, our relationship to the environment and so much more. With the collapse of Tsarist censorship, China Mieville tells us we see a proliferation of public lectures and debates and a plethora of experiments in new artistic forms and culture; a profusion of ideas, as the narrator notes, that “were incubated by the turbulence of revolution.” This intellectual explosion was necessarily part and parcel of the revolutionary upheaval, echoing Marx’s now well know aphorism that it is not consciousness that changes being but being that changes consciousness.

Art and culture and the new sciences played a critical role in exploring the boundaries in politics, and in under half an hour the documentary does a fair job of giving us a tantalising glimpse of those boundary-breaking dreams of a new world. Russian science fiction was profoundly influenced by the events of 1917, exemplified by Yakov Protazanov’s  Aelita: Queen of Mars , where revolutionaries on Mars demand: “workers of all planets unite!” Films, and the arts more generally, were democratised. In fact, films were often shown on the streets, university lectures were open to the workers and the general public and symphonies enlisted the services of factory sirens and gunfire in huge public performances in the cities.

On the reordering of gender relations, the renowned scholar of Russian history Sheila Fitzpatrick effuses about the unprecedented expansion of women’s rights: the Bolsheviks legalised divorce on demand and gave women the right to vote, and of course had among their ministers of government the great firebrand Alexandra Kollontai, People’s Commissar for Social Welfare. We are also reminded that homosexuality was made legal a full fifty years before the UK.

Moreover, the revolution had a tremendous impact on the natural and social sciences. Social sciences like sociology and psychology were given a huge boost, with the very idea that social institutions and structures could be studied scientifically electrifying Western intellectuals. The burgeoning science of ecology, which anticipated and predated the ecological revolution in the west by over fifty years with the geochemists like Vladimir Vernadsky pioneering and developing concepts like the biosphere and the noosphere, the latter being an early antecedent of the theory of the Anthropocene. These theories explored our relationship with earth systems and acknowledged the huge and often destructive impact we have on our environment. In the age of climate catastrophe, this intellectual legacy is especially pertinent today. The Anthropocene is now a new geological period that we have entered, one agreed to by the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA), an advisory group that was tasked with debating the new Earth history boundary and making a formal recommendation to the relevant scientific bodies.  What they agreed was that our impact on Earth’s climate and geology is so immense that in fact, we are now the greatest geological force on the planet. Our impact has prematurely curtailed the previous geological period, the Holocene, the only known geological system which supported the rise of complex human civilisations.

Long live the Red October by Dmitry Moor, 1920

But it wasn’t just Russian politics, arts and science that were profoundly infected by the revolutionary ferment from the East. The intellectual landscape of many more around the world was turned upside down: We learn HG Wells was an ardent follower of Russian revolutionary events, and we hear one recording of Bertrand Russell likening Lenin to the English revolutionary and leader of Parliament in in the English civil war, Oliver Cromwell.  More intriguingly, revolutionary Russia’s position on colonialism radicalised and inspired black intellectuals around the world a full half century before the civil rights movement that began in the US, uniting ‘red and black.’  The great luminary and sociologist of race WE Debois declared, after visiting Bolshevik Russia, that if what he saw and heard was to be trusted, then he was himself a Bolshevik. Sylvia Pankhurst, the renowned revolutionary and Suffragette wrote in 1919 for the Communist International: “Wake up, wake up, oh sleepy British people! The new war is in full blast and you are called to fight in it… you cannot escape, you must take part!” According to one cultural historian, the women’s liberation movement at the time was as dangerous to the British state as the Bolshevik threat, precisely because they were in close dialogue with each other- Sylvia Pankhurst was herself in close correspondence with Lenin.

V.I.Lenin and a Demonstration by Isaak Brodsky, 1919.

There was (and still is) the inevitable reaction from the intellectual Right and Bourgeois liberal traditions. One philosopher pontificates that although the notion that we can take advantage of an ‘emancipatory moment’ and transform ourselves is not an absurd one and indeed, is very tempting, it is nonetheless an illusion based on a philosophical fallacy. What empirical or historical grounds he has for making such a claim is perplexing, given the huge transformative leaps humanity has lived through, each time expanding the horizons of freedom and in turn our epistemic realities. Yet another argues that the fatal error was to assume that with the banishment of private property and the market, the state would be given licence to enter the most intimate spheres of our lives; The import being that such an experiment necessarily leads to overbearing state tyrannies.  This is an erroneous philosophical assessment, not only because Lenin himself wrote extensively about the need to slowly wither the state – this being a fundamental article of Communist faith and precondition of full emancipation – but also because it betrays a poor historical understanding of the forces that fueled the rise of the Soviet state and Stalinism.
Even more eye watering is hearing Francis Fukuyama, the man who arrogantly and triumphantly proclaimed the ‘end of history’ and the victory of Western liberal capitalism with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, sermonize on the evils of believing that any attempt to engineer society, as Lenin and the Bolsheviks allegedly attempted to do, is, as the French Jacobins discovered, doomed to failure; one would expect some humility from a man whose own dictum has been proven so flagrantly wrong by subsequent historical events.
One irony in all this is that these philosophical assessments, which attempt to either cynically repudiate the alleged naivety of such revolutionary experiments, or presume a certain inevitability about them, commit the very philosophical and ontological misdemeanor that Marxists are accused of ad nauseum: the fallacy of preordained ends or historical determinism.  For traditional right-leaning philosophy it is the idea that when people reach up to the heavens, they will instead inevitably descend to the depths of hell. As Mieville helpfully reminds us, any discussion of the Russian revolution is haunted by a ghost of the future: Stalinism. The sunrise was followed by the sunset. Stalinism was,  alongside Fascism, what the famous Bolshevik dissident and writer Victor Serge called the ‘Midnight of the Century’. But the revolution itself was far from haunted and any honest intellectual assessment cannot presume to know how it ends. This is the very worst kind of historical determinism, reading the final outcome retrospectively back into its origins. As Serge averred, the seeds of Stalinism were contained within Bolshevism, but, there were also many other seeds. With the onset of the Anthropocene and the end of the previous geological epoch, perhaps it’s time we revisit the last time society attempted to transform its relationship to the wider world.


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