Russian Revolution Centenary
November 7, 2017 5:51 AM   Subscribe

100 years ago today, the Petrograd Soviet's Military Revolutionary Committee toppled Russia's Provisional Government, leading to the Bolsheviks' assumption of state power.

Various publications feature retrospective editorials:

Ten days that shook a century: How the Russian Revolution still echoes
But the Bolsheviks also echo through the anguished screams of the executed, the whimperings of the starving, the remembered betrayals of neighbors and relatives for the sake of the party. And they echo in the reminder that democracy lives and dies on the faith and willingness of the people to embrace and sustain it.
The Guardian view on Russia’s revolutionary centenary: it shook the world – then it failed
The events of a century ago still have the power to inspire. The fundamental reason for this is that they show, however imperfectly, that at moments of crisis human beings can take control of their own destiny. The Russian Revolution was an inspiration because it told the world that things do not have to stay as they are – in society, in politics, in human relations and in the arts.
100 years on from the Russian Revolution, could a 21st century revolt bring about the end of capitalism?
But if there is anything that history teaches us, it is this: the one inevitability is transformation. It is not a matter of whether capitalism will eventually give way to a new system but what will replace it. According to many on the left, we are on the cusp; or what the poet Robert Browning termed “the dangerous edge of things”. The historian Norman Davies once said that “historical change is like an avalanche. The starting point is a snow-covered mountainside that looks solid. All the changes take place under the surface and are invisible. But something is coming. What is impossible is to say when.”
The democratic aspirations of October 1917 continue to inspire today
John Reed, the great American labor journalist and a founder of the Communist Party USA, was the first to bring this country the news of what had happened in Russia on November 7, 1917. In his widely-hailed account, Ten Days that Shook the World, Reed wrote that a coalition of Russia’s working class and peasants, carrying the banner of “peace, bread, and brotherhood,” had seized power. The “Great October Revolution” (in the old Russian calendar, November 7 was October 25) set itself the task of transforming an oppressive empire into a socialist society.
The varied legacy of Russia's October revolution
A century ago, on November 7, the world was shaken by a revolution in Russia. Public recollection on the centenary has been scanty in India thus far, perhaps out of the fear that remembering the Russian Revolution is tantamount to endorsing its outcomes. But that would be a sentimental approach to history. Historical events are to be evaluated in terms of their consequences.
Why we remember 1917
On November 7--October 25 according to the old Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time--those masses did something that had never happened before and hasn't since in sustained form: They overturned a government committed to defending the system of private property and war in favor of a revolutionary "commune-type state," as Lenin called it, standing for peace for the soldiers and sailors, land for the peasants and bread for the working class.

Even 100 years later, this example remains a threat. The Russian Revolution suffered, from the beginning, an unending campaign of slander to try to discredit it--not to mention a physical campaign of civil war and invasion that was ultimately, if not immediately, successful in strangling the workers' state.
The NYTimes has been running a "Red Century" series all year.

And if you want to follow the minute-by-minute events of 100 years ago, Project 1917 has you covered.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles (85 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
A few more links, from a post I was cobbling together: Thrill to the Internationale or Sergei Eisenstein's October. Read the gripping 10 Days that Shook the World. Organize a meeting to keep the spirit of 1917 alive. Find out how it all went wrong, in Emma Goldman's Disillusionment in Russia, Khrushchev's Secret Speech, or Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. (For a gentler take, there's Orwell's Animal Farm.) Ask what millenials think of it, or Putin's Kremlin. Take a 100 years of revolution tour. Conclude that the failure of the Soviet system implies the End of History. Learn why the October Revolution was in November.
posted by clawsoon at 6:04 AM on November 7 [8 favorites]


The Kremlin is carefully not celebrating 1917, but instead celebrating a 1941 WWII military parade which just coincidentally happens to fall on the same day. Coincidentally. The live stream is, as I post, in the middle of a suitably droning speech.
posted by clawsoon at 6:11 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


China Mieville wrote October, which I have not read yet but which got pretty decent reviews.

Militant Modernism by excellent architecture writer and all around engaging blogger Owen Hatherley, has a bunch of stuff about the early days of the revolution, for good and for bad. Also if you are interested in 20th century architecture it's punchy and engaging.

Perhaps it will all come round again and we'll get it right this time.
posted by Frowner at 6:29 AM on November 7 [4 favorites]


China Mieville wrote October, which I have not read yet but which got pretty decent reviews

Jacobin has an excerpt from his book up today which recounts the events of October 25th/November 7th
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 6:36 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Also, if you have an interest in science fiction at all, Bogdanov's Red Star is....well, if you like that kind of science fiction, you'll like it. I got kind of into it, actually.

Nikolai Chernyshevsky's mid-19th century novel What Is To Be Done contains a dream sequence which is generally considered SFnal about a communist agrarian utopia. Lenin took the title of his "What Is To Be Done" from the novel - it was that influential on reformist and activist thought. In the utopian future, everything is aluminum - a metal that was at the time rarer than gold.

My old favorite, not science fiction except in the sense that it points to an alternative future, is A Day In The Life Of The Soviet Union, which definitely shows the sunnier face of things but is full of interesting detail, like the workers' napping lounge at some business, where workers could, yes, take a nap during their breaks.

If anyone has a book recommendation about fashion and clothing production in the USSR, I would appreciate it. (I have some books about art textiles and 20s utopian fashion, but I'm much more interested in just regular mass production stuff.)
posted by Frowner at 6:40 AM on November 7 [8 favorites]


Perhaps it will all come round again and we'll get it right this time.

People keep saying that, and we keep seeing the same process happen, as revolutions turn into dictatorships. Why are you so optimistic that this time, this time, hell will not come again?
posted by zabuni at 6:44 AM on November 7 [5 favorites]


Two interviews I listened to on Australian radio tonight are now available as podcasts:

The House of Government : a saga of the Russian Revolution
For anyone with a fascination or even a hatred of communist history and revolutionary politics, the House of Government is a remarkable and disturbing book. It is a saga of the Russian revolution of 1917 told through the letters, diaries , poems , stories of the residents of the House of Government .

A real building that still exists in Moscow across the river from the Kremlin. It is the tale of literary obsessed romantic revolutionaries who for decades had plotted in exile or prison. They hoped one day their dream of overturning the Czarist monarchy and establishing a golden utopia for workers and peasants would come true. They succeeded in destroying the monarchy, but not creating the golden utopia.

Red Scare: the Russian revolution and American politics
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had an immediate impact on different American constituencies - the huge native socialist movement and immigrant laborers, and industrialists.

Employers since 1886 had been fending off radicals through local police red squads and in 1917 President Wilson began campaigning against 'hyphenated Americans'. It all came together in the red scare and the Palmer Raids in 1919 and 1920.
The Bolsheviks also opened up an enduring schism in American radicalism, which lasted well into the 1960s and still survives in big divides about Putin in a few corners on the American left.

---

National Treasure Phillip Adams is particularly well suited to host these interviews, as he's not particularly bashful about being a former member of the Communist Party, and being an older gent, speaks on the subject with the familiarity of lived experience.
posted by adept256 at 6:45 AM on November 7 [5 favorites]


The point that usually gets elided is that the October Revolution did not depose the Tsar, it deposed a provisional government, headed by a socialist, which was attempting to set up fair elections.
posted by Segundus at 6:46 AM on November 7 [19 favorites]


Frowner: Nikolai Chernyshevsky's mid-19th century novel What Is To Be Done contains a dream sequence which is generally considered SFnal about a communist agrarian utopia. Lenin took the title of his "What Is To Be Done" from the novel.

I suspect that it wasn't completely coincidental that Dostoyevsky's parody of What Is To Be Done - the bumbling anti-heroism of Notes From Underground - was hailed as great literature in the West.
posted by clawsoon at 6:49 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


> People keep saying that, and we keep seeing the same process happen, as revolutions turn into dictatorships. Why are you so optimistic that this time, this time, hell will not come again?

because things happen the same way over and over again until they don't.

my uninformed hot take is that the Russian Revolution more or less died in 1919 in Germany — that the plan was contingent upon starting a worldwide revolution against capital, and that when that didn't happen the capitalist nations, via the White Army, were able to bludgeon the Russian Revolution half to death in its cradle. It never recovered. Most of the murderous paranoia and tight central control we associate with the USSR started up as a war measure and never went away — and as a war measure, it might even have been necessary. But what started as a war measure never went away, and ended up becoming the sine qua non of Bolshevism.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:02 AM on November 7 [11 favorites]


Patrick Iber in the Los Angeles Review of Books: "The Party's Over: Looking Back on Communism"
UNLESS YOU ARE reading this in North Korea, or perhaps Cuba, capitalism is your problem. Your suffering today — right now, this minute — almost certainly has something to do with the market allocation of goods and the selling of your labor power. (This is true even if your suffering is of the unavoidable human variety that can be at most eased by a superior system of economic distribution: the difficulties that come from the hard work of being young, being old, or being middle-aged.) The profit motive as an organizing principle for human societies has not disappeared, though in some places it has been tempered. The basic promise of liberal democracy — that it should be possible, through collective action, for people to exert control over their own lives — strains against the power of money and markets to influence political outcomes. It’s 2017, and capitalism is still your problem. And if by some miracle it isn’t your problem, then congratulations: you’ve managed to offload your problems onto some poor souls located somewhere else in the system.

A hundred years ago, if you were in just the right place and were just the right person, you might have been able to imagine that it would be otherwise. The Winter Palace had fallen. Vladimir Lenin and a cadre of fellow revolutionaries had taken responsibility for shepherding in a new order. Capitalism had, at last, a true world-historical rival; its internal contradictions were leading inevitably to socialism. Its days were numbered.

We know, or think we know, where all this — the idea the world once called communism — leads. It leads to famines, to work camps, to cults of personality, to drab public art, to crumbling apartment blocks, to the loss of political rights, to forced confessions, and to shooting a few million of your closest comrades in the back of the neck in the pursuit of a just cause. The reason that capitalism is your problem today is that communism failed, catastrophically, to provide a better alternative. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it seemed to leave liberal capitalist democracy as the only viable system remaining, This is what Francis Fukuyama meant when he declared, with apologies to Hegel, that the global spread of liberal democracy represented “the end of history.”
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:04 AM on November 7 [9 favorites]


> The point that usually gets elided is that the October Revolution did not depose the Tsar, it deposed a provisional government, headed by a socialist, which was attempting to set up fair elections.

The point that usually gets elided is that the October Revolution was in large part carried out by soldiers who would have gotten sent back into the pointless meat grinder of the great war if they hadn't revolted.

There's a tendency among Americans to fetishize the Provisional Government. What is overlooked is that the Provisional Government was on the wrong side of the most pressing problems facing Russia, and was positively hagridden by the Russian military's officer class.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:04 AM on November 7 [15 favorites]



People keep saying that, and we keep seeing the same process happen, as revolutions turn into dictatorships. Why are you so optimistic that this time, this time, hell will not come again?


Well, I'm actually an anarchist so I'm a bit of a professional communism-skeptic, but:

1. In the US, at least, we tend to treat the communist countries like conditions arose from ideology alone, not from material circumstances - we don't think back very well to the centuries of serfdom, poverty, lack of infrastructure, tremendous material and educational inequality, etc. And we don't situation the USSR (or China) in the history of imperialism. The Russian Revolution was contoured by Russian conditions, which were not what you'd call so great, ditto China. So we assume that the only way you could get a communist revolution or a communist state is through a bloody, disastrous upheaval.

2. I think that in the US we tend to neglect the revolutions in South and Central America, many of which were pretty promising until they were undermined by the US. What if, for instance, the US and the oligarchy hadn't over thrown Salvador Allende? He wasn't a piping hot communist, but he was a capable Marxist administrator and very popular. What if conditions in Chile had been allowed to develop healthily under a competent, democratically elected government? Or what about people like Mosaddegh or Lumumba, who were marxist-friendly, competent and overthrown by Western anti-communist forces?

My perception is that we don't really know what something you might call a soft-marxist state would look like, because every time someone like Allende gets elected, he gets offed. I believe - despite being an anarchist - that there is a trajectory to socialism through the democratic process and involving minimal, like, killings and imprisonments. My hope is that a wave of democratizing/socializing movements worldwide can be mutually reinforcing, so that the only socialist survivors aren't the ones with the most guns and willingness to use them.

3. Most systems get pretty bloody and terrible. Vaunted US democracy is built on slavery, genocide, a prison system that dwarfs the gulag and the de facto slave labor of millions of factory and farm workers worldwide. We think it's okay because we live, mostly, in the okay part. My point isn't "okay, the US is terrible too, anything goes, bring on the show trials!!!" but that we're not starting from as great a position as we'd like to believe. If anything, we're a bit like the elites in Moscow before the revolution - life can be pleasant and sophisticated and can look pretty good, and there's even enough money floating around to support skilled artisans and make the place look pretty, but once you get outside our part of society, it's not so great. My hope is that we can have another bash at the whole thing with more communication technology, more literacy, better already-existing infrastructure and the lessons of the past.
posted by Frowner at 7:06 AM on November 7 [38 favorites]


There's also Anne Applebaum's Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine. There'a a recent half hour interview with her about it on the History Hit podcast, and an NYT review here.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:07 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


Well, since the Socialist Worker and People's World are already cited here, I'll go ahead and offer Anne Applebaum's bourgeois running-dog of a column: 100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried. There's a lot in there I disagree with—I think her fears of the American "alt-left" are absurd; and while I'm skeptical of Corbyn, I think her fear of him is overwrought as well. But I'm with her appraisal of the Bolsheviks and I'm absolutely with her when she writes
In truth, the most influential contemporary Bolsheviks — the people who began, like Lenin and Trotsky, on the extremist fringes of political life and who are now in positions of power and real influence in several Western countries — come from a different political tradition altogether.
And
Remember: At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who later became known to the world as the Bolsheviks were conspirators and fantasists on the margins of society. By the end of the year, they ran Russia. Fringe figures and eccentric movements cannot be counted out. If a system becomes weak enough and the opposition divided enough, if the ruling order is corrupt enough and people are angry enough, extremists can suddenly step into the center, where no one expects them. And after that it can take decades to undo the damage. We have been shocked too many times. Our imaginations need to expand to include the possibilities of such monsters and monstrosities. We were not adequately prepared.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:12 AM on November 7 [6 favorites]


A paraphrase of a quote that sums up my view: I don't agree with the Communists, but it's nice to have them around if only to disturb the sleep of the rich with a few pangs of anxiety.
posted by clawsoon at 7:31 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]


More links that I should have posted in the OP: speech by Lenin (marxists.org has other recorded Lenin speeches).

Documents from the Russian Revolution: Decree on Peace, Decree on Land

The point that usually gets elided is that the October Revolution did not depose the Tsar, it deposed a provisional government, headed by a socialist, which was attempting to set up fair elections.

Yes, a socialist who perpetuated the Tsarist policy of war and continued to run the country into the ground. Then, when he found himself unpopular (predictably), smashed the leftist press, ordered Bolsheviks to be arrested, and attempted to mobilize loyal troops to crush their movement. History is unfortunately replete with such socialists who pay lip service to the idea but then decide they don't like socialism (or really, even democracy) once it threatens their power.

In fairness to Kerensky, it was extremely unlikely that any bourgeois democratic government would be successful in those conditions -- as all the ones that were set up and overthrown in the former Russian Empire over the course of the subsequent Civil War would reveal. There was no middle class, only -- in the main -- a bunch of pissed off workers, soldiers and peasants.

There's also Anne Applebaum's Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

Sheila Fitzpatrick, a historian of Russia, also wrote a review.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 7:33 AM on November 7 [5 favorites]


Applebaum's piece is frustrating, since the underlying message is more or less "respect extant power." Consider the first two sentence of the first paragraph:

> At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who would become known to the world as the Bolsheviks had very little to show for their lives. They had been in and out of prison, constantly under police surveillance, rarely employed.

The thesis here is that if someone is the target of state oppression, they therefore shouldn't be trusted.

Continuing:

> They were peripheral figures even in the Russian revolutionary underground. Trotksy had played a small role in the unsuccessful revolution of 1905 — the bloody, spontaneous uprising that the historian Richard Pipes has called “the foreshock”

He led the fucking Petersburg Soviet!

> Chaotic elections to the first workers’ soviet, a kind of spontaneous council, were held a few days before the czar’s abdication; the Bolsheviks got only a fraction of the vote. At that moment, Alexander Kerensky, who was to become the Provisional Government’s liberal leader, enjoyed widespread support.

Support that Kerensky spent the subsequent six months squandering.

skipping forward to the present day:

> The current leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, also comes out of the old pro-Soviet far left. He has voiced anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-Israel, and even anti-British (and pro-IRA) sentiments for decades.

But what if Britain actually sucks? What then?

> By contrast, the neo-Bolsheviks of the new right or alt-right do not want to conserve or to preserve what exists. They are not Burkeans but radicals who want to overthrow existing institutions. Instead of the false and misleading vision of the future offered by Lenin and Trotsky, they offer a false and misleading vision of the past.

This analysis is precisely as sound as Steve Bannon's. Which is to say, it's nonsense.

The overall strategy at play here is to identify anything that's not liberalism as "extreme," to identify anyone who doesn't currently hold power as a loon, and to treat all the people you've defined as extreme loons as an identical monolith. This is not a useful methodology for understanding politics, history, or political history.

I expect this thread as a whole will go in one of two directions: either it will contain a lot of cogent critiques of the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks from the left, or it will contain a lot of total nonsense from the right. Applebaum's article is an item from the latter category.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:40 AM on November 7 [22 favorites]


The full quote I was thinking of:
To hell with its practical importance: but may God at least preserve it for us as a never-ending menace to those people who own big estates and who, in order to hang on to them, are prepared to despatch humanity into battle, to abandon it to starvation for the sake of patriotic honour. May God preserve Communism so that the evil brood of its enemies may be prevented from becoming more bare-faced still, so that the gang of profiteers... shall have their sleep disturbed by a few pangs of anxiety.
posted by clawsoon at 7:59 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


(also Trotsky wasn't a Bolshevik until 1917, but that's not something a Washington Post editorial writer can be expected to know.)
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:00 AM on November 7 [9 favorites]


My hope is that a wave of democratizing/socializing movements worldwide can be mutually reinforcing, so that the only socialist survivors aren't the ones with the most guns and willingness to use them.

I think that the US not actively toppling governments it doesn’t like and propping up dictators who inevitably turn against them might be just enough to swing the tide in the other direction- there is nothing inevitable or natural about history no matter how much we like to belive there is, one or two things go differently and the whole outcome is altered.

Anyway! Time to go vote and hum the Internationale while in line.
posted by The Whelk at 8:31 AM on November 7 [6 favorites]


Honestly, I think the biggest reason that Communism failed is exactly the same reason why charities are unable to cover all of the indigent and poor and needy in this country, or even why the 60s communes failed in this country in their purest form - it's because of the human-nature tendency to be selfish shits.

Some of us have an easier time of suppressing that tendency than others - but some of us give in to it now and then, which leads us to black market back-dealing, getting around the law, and such. As noble and compassionate and generous as we can be to our fellow man most of the time, we are all at the same time capable of trying to cut corners here and there and get specific special things that we don't want to share because we want to be special. (I say this with full knowledge of the fact that my most recent Askme was about how to get around the US laws against importing a very specific small chocolate product.)

This corners-cutting, on the small scale, can lead to things like black markets, or to holding a liiiittle bit back from what you produce for the homeland. Sure, the government can then pass laws compelling you to comply with their policy, but then how do you punish the people who still flaunt the law? And at the same time, how do you reward the people who are doing some in-demand, high-pressure work? Especially if everyone is supposed to be equal?

Yeah.

An ideal society also would require all people to be their best selves, and - we haven't managed to get that part of the equation down yet.

Incidentally - October actually was kinda dull as a movie experience. But from what I understand, even the Soviets felt so. The opinon of the filmmaker was crystal clear, however, and it makes for an interesting document from a historical perspective. ....Still, I'm much more intersted in the bookstore near me that's showing Reds tonight instead. (And am half wondering if Whelk will be there, since the Dem Socs are cosponsoring it?)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:50 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


(I’m sitting it out because oh god Reds is like four hours long )
posted by The Whelk at 8:52 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


At least the majority of that four hours is actual plot, I'm assuming, as opposed to mostly being comprised of "intellectual montage" sequences that show guys standing next to statues of Napoleon to emphasize "ooh, this dude wanted to be king!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:54 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]


He led the fucking Petersburg Soviet!

I have to repeat this for emphasis. Applebaum's article is imprecise to the point of mendacity.

Just a few points. First, the weird dismissal of the Revolution of 1905, triggered by this infamy, and forced the imperial government to create the first constitution in Russian history - something that Russians had been fighting and dying for since the early nineteenth century. What is the point of citing Pipes to say it was a "foreshock?" All to minimize the importance of Trotsky?

Second, the phrase "civil war" appears exactly once, and merits exactly one sentence. To speak of the chaos, devastation, and violence of the years after the revolution without mentioning the civil war is absurd. This is in no way to absolve the Bolsheviks of the violence they perpetrated--certainly the establishment of a secret police force was one of the darkest legacies of the revolution's early years. But this somehow suggests that a war with more combatants than I can count, a war that killed not hundreds of thousands, as Applebaum states for some reason, but many millions, a war that nearly destroyed the Bolsheviks, was their deliberate policy.

Again, I do not intend this as an apology for the Red Terror or the establishment of the Cheka or the banning of other leftist parties, the restrictions on the freedom of the press, or anything else. But, at one point, Applebaum turns to a classic rhetorical move: the Bolsheviks, you see, offered the people simple solutions to complicated problems. We, however, understand in our sagacity that the world is complicated. Except, of course, when it comes to assessing the legacy of the Revolution.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 9:05 AM on November 7 [14 favorites]


posted by octobersurprise at 7:12 AM on November 7

eponysterical!
posted by Carillon at 9:17 AM on November 7 [5 favorites]


100 years later, Bolshevism is back. And we should be worried.

weird, i wonder why that is? i don't suppose it has anything to do with relentlessly dismantling the new deal, which was in no small part meant as bulwark against something much more drastic in the united states

joseph kennedy once said he would be happy to give up half of his fortune so that he could keep the other half. today, the plutocrats want to keep all of their fortunes. it's a bold move cotton, let's see if it pays off.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:34 AM on November 7 [7 favorites]


The remaining parts of the DNA tested remains of the Romanov family were on display at Villanova University's Falvey Memorial Library for most of the year (exhibit with audio and video commentary and podcast readings):

Blood and Soul: the Russian Revolutions of 1917
posted by mfoight at 9:58 AM on November 7




I am deeply bothered to find out that Applebaum is an actual scholar of Russian history. This makes me think that what I had interpreted as sloppy wikiresearch from a regular op-ed columnist is in fact deliberate deception.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:01 AM on November 7 [7 favorites]


Also by Mieville from May: Why does the Russian revolution matter?
posted by Space Coyote at 10:29 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]


> The House of Government : a saga of the Russian Revolution

A superb book that I recently finished and plan to make the centerpiece of my Year in Reading report at The Millions. It's very long, but earns its length; you will think it's going off on excessive tangents, but he pulls it all together by the end. Also, lots of great photos, maps, etc. If you have any interest in the USSR, particularly the Stalinist period, read it. (I expect to be saying the same about the second volume of Stephen Kotkin's magisterial biography of Stalin once I've read it.)

> The point that usually gets elided is that the October Revolution did not depose the Tsar, it deposed a provisional government, headed by a socialist, which was attempting to set up fair elections.

Thank you. People very often forget about the February Revolution, which was an actual revolution and not a coup d'etat.

> I suspect that it wasn't completely coincidental that Dostoyevsky's parody of What Is To Be Done - the bumbling anti-heroism of Notes From Underground - was hailed as great literature in the West.

What the... are you seriously suggesting that Dostoevsky is mistakenly praised and fucking Chernyshevsky is great literature?!

> I am deeply bothered to find out that Applebaum is an actual scholar of Russian history.

Gosh, how can anybody be an actual scholar and disagree with you? Yes, she's a scholar, and a fine one. Gulag is an amazing book. Go read it.

I'm depressed but not surprised by the willingness to cut the Bolsheviks as much slack as they need around here. History is hard, but ideology is easy.
posted by languagehat at 10:42 AM on November 7 [16 favorites]


Any recommendations for books about the post-Stalin USSR, particularly social histories? As a child of the Cold War, I learned a great, great deal about Stalin long before I knew anything else about Russia or communism.

(What did I learn? He was a very bad man! Because communism! Communists will make you wear a red clown nose if you're good-looking and wear weights all the time if you're strong! Communists will invade the US and murder Americans because they hate us for our freedom! Also, Stalin was very bad.)
posted by Frowner at 10:47 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]


> Gosh, how can anybody be an actual scholar and disagree with you? Yes, she's a scholar, and a fine one. Gulag is an amazing book. Go read it.

Did you read the article? She cut basically every corner she possibly could to get to the horseshoe theory thesis that lets her pretend that Jeremy Corbyn and Steve Bannon are ideological fellow-travelers.

Like look if I'm going to nominate a hero from 1917, I'm not going to name Lenin or Trotsky (or, for that matter, Kerensky). I'm going to name Nestor Makhno. The Bolsheviks sucked, and figuring out exactly how they sucked is important. Which makes it more important, not less important, to call out off-base critiques of them.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:51 AM on November 7 [10 favorites]


> Did you read the article? She cut basically every corner she possibly could to get to the horseshoe theory thesis that lets her pretend that Jeremy Corbyn and Steve Bannon are ideological fellow-travelers.

Yeah, it wasn't a good article and I'm not defending it—just pushing back against the idea that it makes her somehow illegitimate as a scholar. Lots of good scholars have written dumb shit for newspaper op-eds.

> Like look if I'm going to nominate a hero from 1917, I'm not going to name Lenin or Trotsky (or, for that matter, Kerensky). I'm going to name Nestor Makhno. The Bolsheviks sucked, and figuring out exactly how they sucked is important. Which makes it more important, not less important, to call out off-base critiques of them.

In that we are as one, and I'm sorry I went off on you so ill-temperedly. (As an anarchist, I'm excited by Makhno, but let's face it, he was a brute and not all that effective. Me, I wish Irakli Tsereteli had gotten a crack at running the Provisional Government; he was decent and nobody's fool.)
posted by languagehat at 11:40 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


Hey languagehat - any opinions of Kotkin's Stalin bio (thus far) vs. Simon Montefiore's Young Stalin/Court of the Red Tsar, if you've read those?

I've read Montefiore's, and I'm not sure I have time in this lifetime for TWO two-volume Stalin bios, but YOLO.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:53 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Yeah, basically I'm not attacking her as a scholar — I haven't read her! I'm saying that as a scholar she has a special responsibility not to abuse history to force a pre-established conclusion, [not even / especially not] in a stupid op-ed.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:56 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


I am an honest to God Red diaper baby. My mother was a member of CPUSA. She left. My father was descended from the first czars. I spent my childhood and early teens under surveillance. It was a very isolating experience.
Not that there weren’t good parts, like a couple years in Mexico or long travels through the National and State park system just to have a break from all of that.
It was not at all good for either of my sisters.
I think Communism as it manifested in Russia and China was pretty bad but it replaced some pretty terrible governments which were at least in a few key ways worse.
Growing up I took for granted that we could not even discuss any of this with friends or any form of counselor.
It’s like I never really processed any of this. What talk therapy there is available doesn’t deal with this sort of thing.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:58 AM on November 7 [6 favorites]


There's also Anne Applebaum's Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

Sheila Fitzpatrick, a historian of Russia, also wrote a review.


Anne Applebaum also wrote a rebuttal. [sorry, FB link]

And then everyone got in on the fun. (Not even that linked article summarizing the skirmish is without its bias.)
posted by Kabanos at 12:51 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]


I listed to miéville’s October on audiobook this summer, after reading (I think) this column on Crooked Timber. I enjoyed the book pretty well. It’s less than a serious history but more than a novel, readable, tense, and occasionally funny. I’d recommend it.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:52 PM on November 7


Not her greatest writing, but I think the point Applebaum is clumsily trying to make is that relatively speaking, Lenin et al were fringe characters leading up to 1917. Probably no greater percentage of people had heard of Lenin prior to 1917 had heard of, say, Steve Bannon or Richard Spencer prior to 2016. Helen Rappaport's book "Caught in the Revolution" offers some interesting perspective on how well these characters were known to the general population (it's a really great book - and I note she's on Radio 3 later this evening talking about John Reid).

Any recommendations for books about the post-Stalin USSR, particularly social histories?
Check out Svetlana Alexievich, particularly Second-Hand Time.
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford.
posted by chill at 1:01 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]


Red Plenty is delightful. If you dug Red Plenty and are interested in communism and cybernetics in general, you owe it to yourself to read Eden Medina's Cybernetic Revolutionaries, which concerns Allende's later attempt to set up a cybernetically-controlled economy.

> Not her greatest writing, but I think the point Applebaum is clumsily trying to make is that relatively speaking, Lenin et al were fringe characters leading up to 1917

I'm pretty sure the real point Applebaum was trying to make was something more like "the bolsheviks and the alt-right are the same ps be afraid of Jeremy Corbyn."
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:09 PM on November 7 [4 favorites]


Just remembered another (fiction) book that I think communicated really well the post Stalin years from a social perspective - Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman.
posted by chill at 1:19 PM on November 7


Restless Specters of the Anarchist Dead - "This year is the centennial of two revolutions in Russia: one in which the people toppled the Tsar and another in which the Bolsheviks seized state power. Within twenty years, the Bolsheviks had executed or imprisoned most of those who carried out the revolution. Today, as the hashtag #1917live trends on twitter, we should remember the #1917undead, the anarchists who strove to warn humanity that statist paths towards social change will never bring us to freedom. "
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:20 PM on November 7 [5 favorites]


it will contain a lot of total nonsense from the right. Applebaum's article is an item from the latter category.

The big problem with that column is that what she wants to call "Bolshevism" isn't and the people who she wants to call "Bolsheviks" aren't. The next problem with it is that it's basically an exercise in using everything she fears as a stick to beat everything else she fears, but it isn't total nonsense. You can read her thesis as "respect extant power" or you can read it as "beware those who appeal to revolutionary change and beware those with the power to effect revolutionary change even more." I read it as the latter, but that's partly temperament, I'm sure, and partly because I am a liberal, YMMV.

The Bolsheviks sucked, and figuring out exactly how they sucked is important.

They were a cadre of political zealots who engineered a coup against a hapless, dysfunctional government and in its place built an authoritarian state dedicated to the elimination of political opposition and ultimately to the endorsement of dictatorial rule? At this point in history, I think how they sucked is an agreed on thing across a broad swath of the political spectrum. Whether it could've been done differently then or could be done differently in the future, I don't know. I'm skeptical.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:29 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]


languagehat: What the... are you seriously suggesting that Dostoevsky is mistakenly praised and fucking Chernyshevsky is great literature?!

Nope, and I didn't say either of those things. But you surely recognize how well Notes From Underground fits into the grand tradition of Sad Ineffectual Middle-Aged Middle-Class White Man literature that's catnip for a certain class of critic. As various folks on Metafilter have pointed out, do-nothingism is a political stance that's well suited to that group of people. (It happens to be my group of people, which is probably why Dostoyevsky, and do-nothingism, has appealed so much to me.)
posted by clawsoon at 2:09 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]


> Hey languagehat - any opinions of Kotkin's Stalin bio (thus far) vs. Simon Montefiore's Young Stalin/Court of the Red Tsar, if you've read those?

Kotkin is far, far better. Montefiore is a fun read but I wouldn't trust him on details; he's way too interested in telling a good story. Kotkin doesn't care about telling a good story and is willing to bore you in the interest of making sure you understand exactly what was happening and why at a given period. The first volume goes on about conditions in late tsarist Russia to the point that there's no mention of Stalin himself for chapters on end. If you're just looking for a reasonably quick read about Stalin, Kotkin's not your guy. But I've read a lot about Stalin and about the period, and I learned a hell of a lot from Kotkin. I'm really looking forward to reading the second volume (and eventually the third); I'm hoping someone gives it to me for Christmas (it's right there at the top of the Amazon wishlist!), but if they don't, I'll just have to buy the damn thing myself, despite my reluctance to spend over $10 for a book.
posted by languagehat at 2:19 PM on November 7 [4 favorites]


> But you surely recognize how well Notes From Underground fits into the grand tradition of Sad Ineffectual Middle-Aged Middle-Class White Man literature that's catnip for a certain class of critic.

I... guess? I mean, it would never have occurred to me to look at it that way. It seems to me like saying the Mona Lisa is catnip for guys who like that kind of face, or the Odyssey is catnip for sailors. Maybe so, but...
posted by languagehat at 2:21 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Kotkin doesn't care about telling a good story and is willing to bore you in the interest of making sure you understand exactly what was happening and why at a given period.

Thanks!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:07 PM on November 7


To be clear, I want to know what was happening and why. I may actually delve into this.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:08 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]


But the Anglo-Saxon world was less lucky. It may not be an accident that neo-Bolshevik language has so far enjoyed unprecedented success in Britain and the United States, two countries that have never known the horror of occupation or of an undemocratic revolution that ended in dictatorship.

anne applebaum, there are many, many millions of people in the us, the uk and the commonwealth countries who knew the horror of occupation and undemocratic oppression simply because they weren't anglo-saxon - in fact, some even experienced outright genocide - african americans, native americans, the irish ... many more ...

oh and donald trump, whatever you think he is, isn't smart enough to pull it off
posted by pyramid termite at 4:28 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Restless Specters of the Anarchist Dead - "This year is the centennial of two revolutions in Russia: one in which the people toppled the Tsar and another in which the Bolsheviks seized state power. Within twenty years, the Bolsheviks had executed or imprisoned most of those who carried out the revolution. Today, as the hashtag #1917live trends on twitter, we should remember the #1917undead, the anarchists who strove to warn humanity that statist paths towards social change will never bring us to freedom. "

This is what troubles me. The suppression of anarchists started happening right away after the Revolution, and it wasn't just people who were any kind of plausible threat, either.

Now, I know that the majority of the Bolsheviks and various marxist fellow travelers were good people, and that almost no one wanted things to go as they did, with anarchists or with other dissenters. I consider how hard it is to act now in this age of Trump and think how much harder it would have been to act then, in the actual middle of a civil war. I don't think that the suppression of the anarchists invalidates socialism or undermines every good thing that came out of the revolution.

The cultural memory of that stuff is still with anarchists, though. There's a whole school of dark humor about how we'll be first up against the wall when the revolution comes, and a number of "just like Kronstadt" punchlines.

Sometimes, with socialist comrades, I don't feel that they have my back. I've tried pretty hard to support actually-existing socialists in my actual daily life, because they're my friends, because I think that many of the things they do are worthwhile and because although I am an anarchist by preference, I would settle for a good-enough socialist society. And yet very often I don't get the same support, even from friends. People have said really nasty stuff to me and have not been willing to meet me half way on issues. It's one of those things that, implausibly enough, hurts. I want to believe that there is a meeting point. On metafilter there is, but there hasn't always been in my life. (For instance, I'm part of a group that is formally anarchist but in actual reality has a number of communist participants, including some tankies (Stalinists) and people don't really give them shit even though there's people around this political milieu who experienced, eg, state-sanctioned anti-semitism in the USSR. People are nice. And you never get that back from them, at least not around here - just a bunch of fucking Stalin memes.)

So, like, I don't know. I try to be good about it on the theory that I am after all not myself infallible, so why should I assume that I can predict that socialism can't work and that you can't have a basically not-that-oppressive state?

I hope it goes better this time around, is all I'm saying. I rely on YCTAB and The Whelk and folks to remember this later and, like, not kill all the anarchists.
posted by Frowner at 4:28 PM on November 7 [9 favorites]


I trust The Whelk not to kill everyone to his left. As for me, I think I'm kind of just LARPing Bogdanov. I'm way too unreliable and zany to not get kicked out of the party long before it decides to kill everyone to its left.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 4:58 PM on November 7


My stated policy is that the anarchists keep us honest but I reserve the right to find Neo-primitives silly.
posted by The Whelk at 5:24 PM on November 7 [4 favorites]


(okay the ceiling for my life is "Bogdanov LARPer.". The floor is something like "commie carter page")

Something deep in my brain has trouble accepting the existence of actual real live neoprimitives. Like I thought they only existed in memes.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:42 PM on November 7


AnPrims: At least they aren't AnCaps?
posted by tobascodagama at 7:34 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]


I spent the dogwalking part of my day with the pooch and my 30 year old neighbor Anna, born in Moldova to ethnically Russian parents who decamped for Moscow after the changes. She attended high school in Romania and won a scholarship to a college of traditional medicine in Shanghai, where she became a doctor of Chinese tradtional medicine. While there, she met and married her husband, also my neighbor, Olivier, an aeronautics engineer from suburban Paris who at that tume worked for Airbus but now works for Boeing.

They will be holidaying at Christmas at his parents' place, where her parents will join them.

We walked around the cemetery with the dog and I talked about American funerary practices, pointed out ethnic, fraternal, and pandemic enclaves in the sprawling headstone farm, and answered questions to the best of my ability. I am so sorry that it did not occur to me that today was the centenary of the November 7 revolution.
posted by mwhybark at 8:17 PM on November 7


The Russian revolution inaugurated a century of horrors that should be mourned.
posted by vorpal bunny at 8:33 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]


To be clear, I want to know what was happening and why. I may actually delve into this.

The biography of Stalin to read is Deutscher's, if you can get it.

Within twenty years, the Bolsheviks had executed or imprisoned most of those who carried out the revolution

As I am sure this author is aware, but chose to ignore, there was a great struggle within the Bolshevik party in the aftermath of the revolution for what kind of policies the party would pursue and, unfortunately, the faction that decided it was ok to eliminate all of the Old Bolsheviks (i.e. Stalin) won. Unfortunately that all disappears in a condemnation of a "statist" agenda...

But anarchist histories are always incredibly selective, and that's hardly the worst of it...
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:12 PM on November 7


Thanks, everyone, I'm finding this to be a very interesting thread.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:18 AM on November 8


I have a major problem knowing what a Bolshevik as opposed to a Menshevik is ?; something to do with seizing control of the communist party even though they were in the minority ?. This deceptiveness in language (starting in 1905) was a bad omen for the revolution.

Karl Marx's writings read like the book of Revelations with predictions of collapse and apocalypse.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 1:53 AM on November 8


it's my understanding the bolsheviks wanted to base the revolution on the urban, industrial proletariat, while the mensheviks wanted to base it on the peasantry - that's probably an oversimplification, but that's one thing that was mentioned in that house of government book

they grabbed power with no attempt to compromise with political opponents or people who could have been allies, except out of immediate convenience and necessity - just the way they did it was predictive of what followed - they not only did it without any reference to human rights, they did it without any long-term thinking about whether they would be making it tougher for other revolutions in other countries to succeed by convincing the opposition that it was a bitter fight to the death
posted by pyramid termite at 2:50 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]


Ah, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks... no doubt on everyone's mind because of Ted Cruz's name-dropping last year!

The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were two factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which was the Second International affiliate party in Russia. At its second conference in 1903, there was a dispute about party membership. Lenin argued that membership should be restricted to cadre who play an active role in party affairs. Martov, on the other hand, believed that the definition of membership should be more expansive. Although the differences in wording of the resolutions were slight, and nobody predicted that this issue would cause a schism beforehand, the disagreement was the tip of the iceberg of a difference in philosophy which would become more apparent and substantive over time. (If you want to watch a dramatization of this event, you can watch Patrick Stewart as Lenin in Fall of Eagles.)

The names Bolshevik (majoritarian) and Menshevik (minoritarian) come from later in the same congress. Even though Martov (M) won the vote on membership against Lenin (B), later in the congress Lenin did have a majority because of some other members walking out over a resolution that Bolsheviks and Mensheviks both voted down. At that point, Lenin came up with the names, even though from that point up until 1917 the Mensheviks were definitely the dominant faction. Many inside and outside the RSDLP saw Lenin as a hair-splitting schismatic extremist, thought the dispute was silly, and attempted to reconcile the factions. One mystery is why the Mensheviks accepted an appellation that seemed to minimize their influence.

In 1917 a difference between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks was that the Mensheviks had a "stagist" conception of revolution coming out of orthodox Marxism, which dictated that a bourgeois revolution needed to happen before a proletarian one. Trotsky, a Menshevik up until 1917 when he joined the Bolsheviks, articulated an alternative theory of "permanent revolution," one tenet of which was that a socialist party could carry out the tasks of a bourgeois revolution itself. This difference in philosophies prevented the Mensheviks from being able to appeal to the Russian people as effectively as the Bolsheviks, since the Mensheviks wanted to be a minority faction in a bourgeois government (which would never yield to the demands of the masses, as the pre-October history of the Revolution showed). The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, promised to assume power in an exclusively socialist government that excluded bourgeois factions. With their slogan of "peace, land, bread," they rapidly grew in influence during 1917 while the Mensheviks faltered.

After the Military Revolutionary Committee seized Petrograd, the Mensheviks walked out of the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Soviets in protest of the insurrection happening before the Congress and (in their opinions) without the Congress' authority. The walkout was immediately preceded by Trotsky's famous condemnation of the Mensheviks, "You are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to go: into the dustbin of history!" Which is where they have stayed ever since.

Of course, all of this is much more complicated, but that's a brief summary.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 5:34 AM on November 8 [4 favorites]


The Kremlin is carefully not celebrating 1917, but instead celebrating a 1941 WWII military parade which just coincidentally happens to fall on the same day.

Putin, wary of political tumult, shuns Russian Revolution centenary - "In rare comments on the subject ahead of the centenary, Putin made clear he thought it would have been better if the 1917 Revolution had never happened, and that he believed there was nothing to celebrate."
“... We see how ambiguous its results were, how closely the negative and, we must acknowledge, the positive consequences of those events are intertwined,” Putin told a gathering of academics last month.

“Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at the cost of destroying our statehood and the ruthless fracturing of millions of human lives?”
posted by kliuless at 6:19 AM on November 8


Ha, Putin wouldn't be where he is if not for the Revolution, he ought to be jumping and cheering. Of course, what he means is "couldn't we have developed into an authoritarian state gradually without any flirtation with socialism?" It's not as though he has any problem fracturing lives.

Although one thing you have to hand him, he can put together and then speak a complicated sentence, something that few American politicians can manage and few American voters bother caring about - I suppose one ought to thank Soviet schools for that.
posted by Frowner at 6:25 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]


I bet the pro-Putin tankies (yes, they exist, inexplicably) are feeling pretty conflicted about that statement.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:02 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]


> The biography of Stalin to read is Deutscher's, if you can get it.

Is this a joke? That book was published in 1949, while Stalin was still alive. Deutscher died in 1967. Whatever Deutscher's merits (I own and enjoy his biography of Trotsky), the idea that his book is anything but a musty relic is absurd. Seriously, Kotkin is for now the definitive work; he's taken the latest finds from the archives into account and knows everything there is to know about the social and political context.
posted by languagehat at 7:02 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]


> Karl Marx's writings read like the book of Revelations with predictions of collapse and apocalypse.

I'm guessing the Manifesto was assigned in a class you took, and you've never read any other Marx? Cause like you're in a room full of people who've actually read Marx, right now. Stating a counterfactual like that one up above does nothing but lose you ethos.

Seriously, though, it'd behoove you to pick up Capital and make a run at it. If the first three chapters are too dry, skip ahead to 4 if you have to and then circle back at the end. Don't go into it expecting the book of Revelations, though, cause if that's what you expect, you'll likely end up very bored.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:25 AM on November 8 [5 favorites]


Is this a joke?

Nope. It's a great book (of the caliber of his Trotsky bios, which you say you enjoy). And he was writing at a time when assessments of Stalin were a live political issue (at least, much more so then they are now) and Deutscher focuses on that aspect; he calls it a "political biography." More recent does not necessarily equal better. The version anyone obtains these days will likely have the preface written in 1960. And, in any event, it's more approachable than (what will be) Kotkin's 3000 page trilogy.

(The same way I prefer the much older Chamberlin history of the revolution to the more recent Figes -- which I finally got around to reading on your recommendation.)
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 9:35 AM on November 8 [1 favorite]


OK, calling it "a musty relic" was over the top; he's a good writer and his Stalin bio is certainly worth reading once you've got a handle on Stalin's life from somebody more recent. If you personally find it to be your favorite bio, great, but surely you recognize that a personal preference is not an objective standard, and your personal favorite is not necessarily the thing you should be recommending to anyone who wants to know about Stalin. Surely you realize that a whole lot has been learned about Stalin and the facts of his life since 1949, or even 1960. If thousands of pages are too much (which I can certainly understand), there's Volkogonov's Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (1991) and Service's Stalin: A Biography (2004).

Look, I love Pound's Homage to Sextus Propertius with a passion and am happy to recommend it to anyone who enjoys vigorous English poetry, but if someone asks for a good translation of Propertius I'm going to point them elsewhere, because Pound's is great poetry but not a dependable translation. One has to make these discriminations.
posted by languagehat at 3:05 PM on November 8


I'm not sure what makes you think I was anointing an "objective standard." Of course, no such thing exists in historiography; the closest one comes to that is a consensus opinion. And, of course, Russian revolutionary history is a highly politicized subject where differences of opinion are the norm.

Sure, Deutscher's biography was written before the opening of the Soviet archives. In fact, most of it was written before Khrushchev's secret speech. However, Deutscher says in his various prefaces that the revelations confirm the story he told in the book, and I would bet if he were around he would say the same thing about the opening of the Soviet archives. Granted, some of the details would be out of date, but they are just that -- details. The book remains a fine introduction to the subject.

And Volkogonov's book is certainly not the Stailn biography to recommend to a new reader; it would be more properly be an addition to round out a enthusiast's collection. See the London Review of Books opinion that pans it for being "flabby, verbose, and [abounding] in repetition", "drown[ing] in a sea of minutiae" and "undoubtedly interesting, [but] not sensational, and changes little in what we previously knew about Stalin." This seems a pretty accurate portrait of Volkogonov's writing in general. (For instance, the Nation compares Volkogonov's newer bio of Trotsky to Deutscher's: "The new book reads like a crib by not the brightest of pupils... What is important is not new and what is new is relatively unimportant.")
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:19 PM on November 8


More centenary-related things:

White House statement on "National Day for the Victims of Communism"

Leftover Lenins: From Cuba to Kolkata and the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, we look at 22 of the most striking monuments to Vladimir Lenin still standing a century after his Bolshevik revolution.

How the Russian Revolution Reshaped the U.S. Socialist Movement

Lenin the cat lover
: rare photos of Soviet leader go on show in Oxford
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:32 PM on November 8 [1 favorite]


> And Volkogonov's book is certainly not the Stailn biography to recommend to a new reader

Yeah, fair enough. There just isn't a reasonably sized, up-to-date bio of Stalin that isn't tainted by partisanship on one side or another.
posted by languagehat at 9:00 AM on November 9 [1 favorite]


You Can't Tip a Buick: Seriously, though, it'd behoove you to pick up Capital and make a run at it.

I'd recommend skipping to the chapters on primitive accumulation. Life's too short to grind through hypothetical calculations about an imaginary 19th-century business.
posted by clawsoon at 10:08 AM on November 9 [1 favorite]


In fact, why shouldn't someone read Deutscher's bio first? It's well written and will probably interest the reader enough they'll go on to other books. Sorry, I was caught up in Kotkin enthusiasm to the point I was reflexively trashing the competition!
posted by languagehat at 10:22 AM on November 9 [2 favorites]


I'd recommend skipping to the chapters on primitive accumulation. Life's too short to grind through hypothetical calculations about an imaginary 19th-century business.

So you recommend skipping 7 (of 8) parts of the book?

If people want a clear exposition of Marx's economic theories without reading the original*, there are a few good book to check out. Duncan Foley's commentary is probably the best, IMHO (others prefer Heinrich; Harvey is probably the most popular, but my least favorite). If you want just a "Cliff's Notes" version of Capital, check out Brewer's companion.

Marx did write a very readable distillation of his economic theories for workers to read. See Wage-Labor and Capital / Value Price and Profit. So that can be a good place to start if one doesn't feel like navigating the brick of Capital Vol 1.

* And keep in mind Capital Vol. 1 was only the first piece of a much larger plan of writing... Vols 2 and 3 and Theories of Surplus Value and the Grundrisse eventually got cobbled together by others after Marx's death, but still represent only a fraction of the original ambition.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:42 AM on November 9 [1 favorite]


for reals though primitive accumulation should have come earlier in the book and should have gotten more space. We'd likely have been spared a thousand blinkered articles on the dangers of "identity politics" if ol' Karl had been clearer on how capitalism works not just through the regular exploitation of workers treated as formal equals in the marketplace, but also through straightforward violent theft from people and nations designated as lesser-than.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:45 PM on November 9 [2 favorites]


Looks like Jacobin has a lot of other recent pieces about the Russian Revolution. The best is probably How the Bolsheviks Won by Alexander Rabinowitch.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 6:46 PM on November 9 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: There just isn't a reasonably sized, up-to-date bio of Stalin that isn't tainted by partisanship on one side or another.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 5:16 PM on November 10 [3 favorites]




But anarchist histories are always incredibly selective, and that's hardly the worst of it...

Okay, I've been thinking about this for a couple of days, and here's my issue with it:

1. Anarchist histories are...well, I would agree that there are many, many very selective anarchist histories and only a comparatively few truly scholarly ones. There are a variety of reasons for this - temperament, some intrinsic failings of anarchist theory, lack of access to institutions and archives, for instance.

2. But what I notice both with your posts and in the world is that a strain of marxists both want credit for the USSR and want to disavow its problems, and do not want to acknowledge systemic risk.

Now, if you're just saying "the October Revolution was great but then it went to shit and everything after about 1919 isn't really defensible", fine - I can buy the "anarchists don't acknowledge that there was a factional struggle and a civil war, the bad stuff wasn't the fault of my faction, if my faction had won it would have been awesome". But if you're saying that the USSR itself had a lot of good parts, I feel like you have to acknowledge, eg, the murders of anarchists, the outlawing of abortion under Stalin, the quick return to homophobia and prosecution, the anti-semitism that was practiced at the state level.

I also feel like there's insufficient acknowledgement of systemic risk. It seems clear to me that if you have a violent revolution, the people who are the most likely to win are the most ruthless and violent, ditto for factional struggle, and both because of the revolutionary struggle and because of factional fighting, it is likely that there won't be strong opposition to counterbalance them. Also, the pressures of the moment will push people to bad decisions. I don't think this is inevitable, but you certainly see it in the Chinese revolution. So to me, when people cheerlead revolutions, I find myself thinking that you're probably looking at a 90/10 risk of things going really badly in terms of starving, murder of people who obviously didn't deserve to be murdered and things that make it hard to get to small-d democratic practice.

3. I understand that in the US, marxists are expected to be abject, always apologizing for the USSR, etc, and I'm excited that the DSA and other projects are able to escape this, and that times appear to have changed enough so that it isn't mandatory. But times have changed substantially because there isn't the gulag anymore. The DSA doesn't have to apologize for the gulag because the DSA doesn't have a history of excusing it.

Also, there's a difference between the right wing saying "apologize for the gulag you marxist-fascist, get on your knees and stay there" and people on the left, or Jewish people, or gay people saying "our people were killed or destroyed or exiled while your organization looked away".

4. I've often thought that pinning marxism to the USSR and in particular to Lenin and Stalin is sort of a mistake. Lenin in particular was a very interesting, accomplished and brilliant guy, but he did enough stuff that gives one pause that I think it's a problem for the movement.

There are other socialists, there are other socialist movements - in the Americas, we have our choice, in fact.

It's not that I want to knock down the Russian revolution - it's fascinating, many unlikely and brilliant things were attempted and in the long run many things were achieved, especially given initial conditions. But even now I'm not entirely happy with the way it's discussed.
posted by Frowner at 6:11 AM on November 11 [5 favorites]


But if you're saying that the USSR itself had a lot of good parts, I feel like you have to acknowledge, eg, the murders of anarchists, the outlawing of abortion under Stalin, the quick return to homophobia and prosecution, the anti-semitism that was practiced at the state level.

Who says I don't? I don't take the position, and don't think I ever have, that everything that happened in the USSR -- much less under Stalin -- was a glorious accomplishment.

By the same token, I would hope that those of an anarchist persuasion would not downplay the negatives of anarchism in Russia. Just a couple points there: I think languagehat was appropriate in calling Makhno a "brute" upthread. And you mention anti-semitism; the Kronstadt sailors score very poorly on that metric.

So to me, when people cheerlead revolutions, I find myself thinking that you're probably looking at a 90/10 risk of things going really badly

What you're talking about is advocacy of revolution in the abstract. Let's talk about the concrete historical circumstances in which the Bolsheviks actually did advocate for revolution.

Under the Kerensky government, Russia was unquestionably at a crossroads. His government was crumbling, as constantly reshuffling cabinet ministers could not satisfy the elemental demands of the Russian people for land, peace and bread. It was not a question of if the government would collapse, but when, and the masses supported its overthrow.

Had the Bolsheviks hesitated, it's hard to imagine things going much better. There was no democracy on offer; the other moderate socialists, if given power, would have continued to include the bourgeoisie in government (as befitted their stagist theory of revolution and their reluctance to take power), thus kicking the can down the road. Of course, there were monarchists, reactionary capitalists and military leaders (e.g. Kornilov) that would have been happy to take power -- and, indeed, would attempt to do so during the Civil War. Thus the choice in Russia's governance was not between Bolsheviks and moderate socialists, but between Bolsheviks and reactionaries. Had the later elements taken power, as Christopher Hitchens once said, "the common word for fascism would have been a Russian one."

With the hindsight granted by history, we are often inclined to look only at the negative side of the register of the Russian Revolution because the Bolsheviks lost -- their gamble on an immanent European proletarian revolution turned out to be a false one. However, the upside of that victory would have been incredible: no WWII, no Holocaust, etc. That was the kind of barbarism that the Bolsheviks were attempting to prevent via their Revolution.

So yes, it did turn out, all told, that things went badly. But, to me, that only seems like part of the consideration. Did the Bolsheviks make the right call in 1917, knowing what was at stake? It seems to me that they did; they had no certainty about the outcome, but the chances of worldwide revolution looked pretty good. And, who knows, but for a few swings in the subsequent Civil War, their gamble may have proven correct.

I'm excited that the DSA and other projects are able to escape this, and that times appear to have changed enough so that it isn't mandatory

Well, one reason members of the DSA don't spend time apologizing for certain aspects of history is that they don't know any left history! I hope I don't come off as flippant in saying this, but the fact is that an overwhelming majority of DSA's new membership is young and inexperienced in left history and its factional differences. And why would they not be? It's not as though one comes out of the womb knowing Kautsky's position on imperialism, and lord knows that they don't teach that kind of stuff in the educational system. It's not something I blame the new members for.

Sure, there are exceptions, but in the main DSA members can't tell Bukharin from Bakunin, and probably haven't heard of either. Frankly, I think this is one of the failings of DSA -- they really don't do much if any internal education of their own members. In fact, I was just talking to a very active member of DSA the other day and it was clear that he and his DSA friend group were rather oblivious when it came to left history. He had tons of questions for me: where did the DSA come from? What's Maoism? Trotskyism? Stalinism? Why is the Russian Revolution important, and what did it do, anyways? What are these Internationals you mentioned? I think this is rather representative of the cohort now streaming into the DSA.

You're right that the DSA doesn't have to repent for the gulag, but if we are going to "relitigate" the past (to borrow a current phrase) the DSA's hands aren't exactly clean, either. Michael Harrington, the DSA's founder was, for instance, a tacit supporter of the Vietnam War. Now, the DSA proper escapes most historical responsiblity, if only because it has been, for all intents and purposes, politically irrelevant since its early 80s founding (until recently).

But if we apply the same standard that you seem to be using -- that present adherents of political traditions can be reproached for the actions of their comrades a century ago in EurAsia -- then social democracy has quite a bit to answer for, as well. Not least among these crimes are the support of World War I and the collaboration with the proto-Nazi German Free Corps to murder the German Communist Party leaders. (I can go into more Second International skullduggery if you'd like!) Thus I think the framing of Second versus Third International which is often used, often by supporters of social democracy, of a blameless Second International counterposed to a bloodthirsty Third, is a false and ahistorical one.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 3:47 PM on November 11 [3 favorites]




That's an amazing story; thanks for posting it!
posted by languagehat at 8:04 AM on November 13


WSWS has weekly summaries of events in 1917, starting in February
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 7:04 AM on November 15


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