The jour­ney into the heart of red­ness

A hun­dred years af­ter the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion, we need to re­call its ori­gins in pop­u­lar demo­cratic power

Mail & Guardian - - Comment Analysis -

On Jan­uary 3 1905 work­ers at the Pu­tilov Iron­works in St Peters­burg struck in re­sponse to the dis­missal of four work­ers. Their de­mands quickly es­ca­lated to in­clude an eight-hour day, a min­i­mum wage and the for­ma­tion of an elected work­ers’ coun­cil. In less than a week, the strike spread to fac­to­ries across the city.

By Jan­uary 21, St Peters­burg was in ef­fect shut down.

The fol­low­ing day un­armed work­ers were mas­sa­cred as they marched on the Win­ter Palace to present a pe­ti­tion to Tsar Ni­cholas II.

Strikes quickly spread through the Rus­sian Em­pire. When uni­ver­si­ties were closed down in March, rad­i­cal stu­dents joined the fer­ment. In St Peters­burg a coun­cil, known as a Soviet, was elected to rep­re­sent work­ers across dif­fer­ent unions and fac­to­ries. By the end of the year it had been re­pressed by the state, and its lead­ers ar­rested.

In 1914, when Rus­sia found it­self at war with Ger­many, St Peters­burg was re­named Pet­ro­grad. The slaugh­ter across Europe did not en­able na­tion­al­ism to fully sup­press so­cial ques­tions..

On Fe­bru­ary 14 1917, work­ers at the Pu­tilov Iron­works em­barked on another strike. Five days later tens of thou­sands of women, led by strik­ing tex­tile work­ers, took to the streets on In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day, to protest food short­ages. Strikes and riots es­ca­lated rapidly and sol­diers be­gan to mutiny. On Fe­bru­ary 27 the Pet­ro­grad Soviet was es­tab­lished.

That even­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary crowds re­leased pris­on­ers and de­stroyed the of­fices of the se­cret po­lice, as well as po­lice sta­tions across the city. Sovi­ets were rapidly con­sti­tuted, from be­low, around the coun­try.

On April 3 Vladimir Lenin ar­rived in Pet­ro­grad, from his ex­ile in Zurich. The fol­low­ing day his April Th­e­ses were first pre­sented in speeches at two meet­ings. Lenin made ref­er­ence to the Paris Com­mune of 1871.

The com­mune — which ended in mas­sacre af­ter 72 days — took the form of the seizure of po­lit­i­cal power by a form of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pop­u­lar democ­racy, in which del­e­gates were elected to a coun­cil and sub­ject to im­me­di­ate re­call.

Lenin pro­posed a “com­mune state” and af­firmed a rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­gramme un­der Soviet au­thor­ity. He called for the “abo­li­tion of the po­lice, the army, and the bu­reau­cracy” and for “the salaries of all of­fi­cials, all of whom are elec­tive and dis­place­able at any time, not to ex­ceed the av­er­age wage of a com­pe­tent worker”.

Lenin as­serted that full com­mit­ment to pop­u­lar demo­cratic power would en­able “the peo­ple” to “over­come their mis­takes by ex­pe­ri­ence”.

On Oc­to­ber 23 1917, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tary com­mit­tee — made up of armed work­ers, sol­diers and sailors — was formed in the Pet­ro­grad Soviet un­der the au­thor­ity of its leader, Leon Trot­sky. The fol­low­ing night bridges and tele­graph of­fices were seized. On the morn­ing of Oc­to­ber 25 Lenin an­nounced the trans­fer of power to the Pet­ro­grad Soviet. The world shook.

The red flag adopted by the Soviet Union, like those of China and Viet­nam, reached back to the Paris Com­mune — fa­mously de­scribed by Karl Marx as “the po­lit­i­cal form at last dis­cov­ered” for eman­ci­pa­tion.

The com­mune had de­rived the red flag from the Ja­cobins who had raised it in the af­ter­math of the French Rev­o­lu­tion of 1789.

From early on, the red of the Ja­cobins had es­caped the bound­aries of the na­tion. When Bri­tish sailors mu­tinied in 1797 they raised red flags on their ships. In the 1831 Merthyr Ris­ing in Wales, coal min­ers raised two flags, soaked in the blood of a calf. The red flag was raised in the failed rev­o­lu­tions in var­i­ous parts of Europe in 1848, and again at a May Day rally for an eight-hour work­day in Chicago in 1886.

Com­mu­nism, as a word, en­tered the his­tor­i­cal record in 1840, and re­ceived its most in­flu­en­tial ex­pres­sion in the man­i­festo writ­ten by Marx and Friedrich En­gels in 1848. Com­mu­nists had of­ten first been rad­i­calised by the ex­pro­pri­a­tion of the com­mons.

There had been a long his­tory in Europe, be­fore the French Rev­o­lu­tion, of strug­gle for the com­mons — shared ac­cess to, and man­age­ment of, the fields, wa­ters and forests.

In the peas­ant wars — which raged across Ger­man-speak­ing Europe in the 16th cen­tury — the strug­gle to elect and de­pose clergy, end serf­dom and re­store ac­cess to the com­mons, was rep­re­sented by a vil­lager’s shoe hoisted on to a pole.

When Thomas Müntzer, a rad­i­cal cleric, founded a mili­tia to sup­port the peas­ants against the princes, its sol­diers marched un­der a rain­bow flag, a sign of God’s covenant af­ter the flood.

But from the 13th-cen­tury English sto­ries of Robin Hood — rob­bing the rich to give to the poor — to the 17th cen­tury strug­gle of the Lev­ellers, the colour of the strug­gles for the com­mons was most of­ten green.

These strug­gles were of­ten as­so­ci­ated with the in­sur­gent as­ser­tion of pop­u­lar democ­racy. In 1647 the sol­diers of the New Model Army, many of whom were Lev­ellers, re­fused to dis­band when or­dered to do so by Par­lia­ment, and re­solved to elect their own lead­ers — known as ag­i­ta­tors — di­rectly from within their ranks.

But by the 1840s there was, Peter Linebaugh writes, a sense that, whereas the com­mons “be­long to the past”, com­mu­nism “was the new name to ex­press the rev­o­lu­tion­ary as­pi­ra­tions of pro­le­tar­i­ans. It pointed to the fu­ture.” It would, ap­pro­pri­ately, find its fullest red — a red that emerged from a by-prod­uct of in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion — in the fu­ture.

Cad­mium, first dis­cov­ered in a lab­o­ra­tory in Ger­many in 1817, is a soft metal, usu­ally de­scribed as “bluish­white” or “sil­very” in colour. It can­not be mined on its own be­cause it doesn’t ex­ist in con­cen­trated form. It emerges when zinc, cop­per and lead are mined, smelted and re­fined. It is poi­sonous. It is used for nu­clear fis­sion, bat­ter­ies and for paint — bril­liant yel­low, orange and red.

Cad­mium red is bright, bold and strong — the colour of ar­te­rial blood, — the deep­est, purest red on the artist’s palette. It first be­came avail­able in 1910. Henri Matisse — who, John Berger wrote, “clashed his colours to­gether like cym­bals” — em­braced it im­me­di­ately, and with spec­tac­u­lar ef­fect, in The Red Stu­dio. Vin­cent van Gogh’s reds, made with lead pig­ment, have faded. But cad­mium red is a per­ma­nent red. Matisse’s paint­ing, now in New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, is as strik­ing as the day it was fin­ished in 1911. From Pablo Pi­casso to Paul Cézanne — who de­clared that “colour is the place where our brain and the uni­verse meet” — cad­mium red has marked a set of at­tempts to in­scribe bold­ness and vi­tal­ity into the mod­ern. It was used in many Soviet po­lit­i­cal posters.

By the sec­ond half of 1921, Lenin was se­ri­ously ill. He suf­fered strokes in May and De­cem­ber 1922, and again in March 1923.

His last doc­u­ment was writ­ten on March 2 that year. He de­scribed the state ap­pa­ra­tus as “de­plorable” and warned that “the most harm­ful thing would be haste. The most harm­ful thing would be to rely on the as­sump­tion that we know at least some­thing, or that we have any con­sid­er­able num­ber of el­e­ments nec­es­sary for the build­ing of a re­ally new state ap­pa­ra­tus, one re­ally wor­thy to be called so­cial­ist.”

Lenin sug­gested three reme­dies: “First, to learn, sec­ondly, to learn, and thirdly, to learn, and then see to it that learn­ing shall not re­main a dead let­ter, or a fash­ion­able catch­phrase … that learn­ing shall re­ally be­come part of our very be­ing, that it shall ac­tu­ally and fully be­come a con­stituent el­e­ment of our so­cial life.”

When Lenin died on Jan­uary 21 1924, his body was wrapped in a faded red flag from the Paris Com­mune.

But the au­thor­ity of the party and the state was al­ready ex­pro­pri­at­ing the pop­u­lar demo­cratic power that had made the rev­o­lu­tion. Lenin’s name was in­creas­ingly used to as­sert dogma against free in­quiry. The state that em­balmed his body would be­come rapidly more de­plorable as time wore on. Lit­tle cults, fre­quently pu­trid, would place Lenin at the cen­tre of a sub­li­mated re­li­gios­ity, of­ten rad­i­cally alien­ated from what Marx had called “the real move­ment which abol­ishes the present state of things”.

To­day the images in Soviet posters — with their in­dus­trial and statist vi­sions of a great fu­ture — of­ten ap­pear as relics of an op­ti­mism that seems, much like old sci­ence fic­tion films, hope­lessly ar­chaic.

But the op­ti­mism of­ten as­so­ci­ated with lib­er­al­ism af­ter the col­lapse of the Soviet Union is now also lost. In much of the world, forms of au­thor­i­tar­ian pop­ulism, gen­er­ally or­gan­ised around chau­vin­ism of var­i­ous kinds, have seized the po­lit­i­cal ini­tia­tive. It has be­come clear that if lib­er­al­ism is not ef­fec­tively chal­lenged from the left it will give way to the right.

The eman­ci­pa­tory de­sires that seem con­tem­po­rary of­ten take the form of the pol­i­tics of open assem­bly and the in­sur­gent con­sti­tu­tion of new demo­cratic au­thor­ity. There is a thread here — green be­fore red — that ties this mo­ment to the strug­gles of the past.

As we con­front the cen­te­nary of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion we would do well to take its ori­gin in the con­sti­tu­tion of pop­u­lar demo­cratic power se­ri­ously — and to give care­ful thought to how that came to be sup­planted by the party and the state.

If lib­er­al­ism is not ef­fec­tively chal­lenged from the left it will give way to the right

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