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Century of Revolutions

Photo by ☥ЧёрнäяᛋⱯi▶Бöр0дă✡ | CC BY 2.0

The USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). At first, the name does not refer to a territory, but to an idea — world revolution. Its borders will be those of the uprising that has triumphed in Russia, and later of those expected to triumph elsewhere. In the top left corner of a huge red flag, a hammer and sickle symbolises the new state, the first national anthem of which is The Internationale.

The founder of the USSR is internationalist, no question. Lenin spends much of his life as a professional revolutionary in exile in Munich, London, Geneva, Paris, Krakow, Zurich, Helsinki… And he takes part in almost all the major debates of the workers’ movement. In April 1917 he returns to Russia, where the Revolution has broken out and the tsar has abdicated. As his train is crossing Germany at the height of the Great War, he hears The Marseillaise, a song that symbolises the French Revolution for many of his comrades. In many respects, this represents a more significant reference point in Lenin’s writing than the history of tsarist Russia. Doing as well as the Jacobins — ‘the best models of a democratic revolution and of resistance to a coalition of monarchs against a republic’ (1) — and lasting longer than the Paris Commune are his obsessions. Nationalism has no part in it.

The Bolshevik leader later recalled that as early as 1914 his party (unlike almost all other European socialists and trade unionists who allowed themselves to be drawn in to a sacred union against a foreign enemy) ‘was not afraid to advocate the defeat of the tsarist monarchy and to condemn a war between two imperialist birds of prey.’ As soon as the Bolsheviks came to power, therefore, they ‘offered peace to all peoples [and did] everything humanly possible to hasten the revolution in Germany and other countries’ (2). Internationalism again.

It was the ultimate paradox (and one which would have serious consequences) that a party dedicated to a proletarian dictatorship seized the opportunity offered by the sudden collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the absence of other serious contenders for power (3) to take control of the state in a country where the working class represented barely 3% of the population. But that mattered little at the start, as support and salvation were expected to come from abroad, from more advanced countries with more powerful and politically literate proletariats. It would only be a matter of weeks, the Bolsheviks thought, months at most: anger was rising in Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain, and mutinies proliferating. By October 1917 Lenin could barely contain his impatience. The Russian uprising should wait no longer as ‘the undeniable symptoms of a great turning point, the eve of a revolution on a global scale’ were becoming clear. The Bolsheviks must fire the opening salvo. And wait for reinforcements.

‘Immediate peace’

In Berlin, Munich and Budapest these reinforcements are crushed. And when Russia’s new authorities offer ‘all belligerent peoples immediate peace without annexations or indemnities’, imperial Germany keeps fighting, confident that Russian soldiers have had enough of pointless massacres. The fledgling state, in an act of self-preservation, cedes some of its territory under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It sacrifices space to buy time, and keeps hoping for revolution in Europe. Counter-revolution springs up instead: rather than the ‘workers’ peace against all capitalists’ that Lenin has called for, ten corps of expeditionary forces, from the US, Canada, France, Great Britain, Serbia, Finland, Romania, Turkey, Greece and Japan, are dispatched to help the ‘White’ armies restore the old order.

Though revolutionary Russia emerges victorious from this new war in 1921, it is devastated, and becomes a pariah among countries whose hostility has increased as the USSR makes no secret of its intention to overthrow their regime. After the October Revolution, capitalism has lost control of the largest territory on Earth. As if the thunderbolt of revolution were not enough, communism — seen as hirsute, threatening, cosmopolitan, Jewish, with a knife between its teeth — is not something uniquely Russian that can be contained behind a cordon sanitaire. It is also the enemy within, the disciplined foot soldier of an Internationale whose capital is Moscow, the dreaded threat of a social revolution that could happen anytime, anywhere.

The myth of the historically inevitable revolution plays a more abstract role; it is something, when one is lonely and miserable, to have history on one’s side

— Simone Weil

A threat, but also an enduring hope, despite the rivers of blood punctuating its history. In 1934 the philosopher and political activist Simone Weil criticised the ‘outrage inflicted on Marx’s memory by the cult dedicated to him by the oppressors of modern Russia.’ Yet in 1937, at the height of Stalin’s purges, during which 70% of Bolshevik leaders were shot, she wrote: ‘The myth of Soviet Russia is subversive in so far as it can give the communist factory worker who is sacked by his foreman the feeling that, in spite of all, he has behind him the Red Army and Magnitogorsk, and thus enable him to preserve his pride. The myth of the historically inevitable revolution plays the same, though a more abstract, role; it is something, when one is lonely and miserable, to have history on one’s side’ (4).

The fact remains: despite its failures, even in its most perverted forms the system that governed a third of the planet, the most important political movement of the past century, almost always brought the abolition of capitalist property, the development of education, free health care, the emancipation of women, and diplomatic, military, financial and technical support for the majority of anti-colonial struggles, and for the independent states they created. Not forgetting ‘an unprecedented enterprise of political promotion of the working classes,’ which propelled ‘workers and peasants into institutions of power previously reserved solely for representatives of the bourgeoisie’ (5).

For among communist activists, internationalist ties cared as little about differences of language, religion, ethnicity and borders as do social networks today. The spark of hope that galvanised Simone Weil’s factory worker who thought about Magnitogorsk could be found in the secular France of the 1930s, but also in Protestant Germany, Confucian China, Muslim Indonesia, and among Cuban tobacco pickers and Australian sheep shearers (6). What political movement can claim that today?

Debating the revolution

Luis Sepúlveda, in his short story The Soldier Chapayev in Santiago de Chile, describes one of his acts of solidarity with the Vietnamese in December 1965, during the war with the US. Along the way, the reader discovers that the author was then political secretary to the Maurice Thorez cell of the Chilean Communist Party; that he had a comrade who ran the Nguyen Van Troi cell; that they debated Trotsky’s The Permanent Revolution and Lenin’s The State and Revolution, they recalled that ‘at the St Petersburg duma, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had debated for 72 hours before calling on the Russian masses to rise up’; and that they chatted up girls by inviting them to read Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel was Tempered and watch Soviet films. Internationalist stories like this were common in the century of Lenin.

What has replaced Moscow? Davos? The breakup of the Soviet Union precipitated the triumph of a different universalism, benefiting the property-owning classes. The reversal was so drastic that in 2000 the historian Perry Anderson wrote: ‘For the first time since the Reformation, there are no longer any significant oppositions — that is, systematic rival outlooks — within the thought-world of the West; and scarcely any on a world scale either, if we discount religious doctrines as largely inoperative archaisms … neoliberalism as a set of principles rules undivided across the globe’ (7).

This restoration has had real-world consequences: according to World Bank economist Branko Milanović, since 1998 rising global wealth has reversed the trend that had prevailed since 1914, and has increased inequalities. He does not see the social voluntarism of the past as accidental: ‘The pressure of the Russian Revolution, that of the socialist and trade union movements, strengthened by the disenchantment of the working classes with the rich, whom they viewed as responsible for the conflict, accentuated the phenomenon of redistribution’ (8).

Progressive taxation, labour legislation, the eight-hour working day, social security, the reluctance to give the rich control of the state: all these were not unconnected with the example of the October Revolution for some; with the fear of a revolution for others. And once the latter had been exorcised, the unfortunate effects of ‘happy globalisation’ multiplied: the unravelling of redistributionist policies, the western right of intervention, privatisation of public services, and the disqualification of any communist, anarchist or self-determined revolutionary project.

In August 1991, a few weeks before the breakup of the USSR, Jean-Denis Bredin, a centre-left French lawyer and member of the Académie Française, sounded a melancholy note amid the general trumpeting of the ‘end of history’. ‘Is it possible to suggest,’ Bredin wrote in Le Monde, ‘that socialism here would not have been anything but a differently named centre-left secularism if there had been no communism to keep an eye on it, treading on its heels, always ready to supplant it, a communism that stopped it drifting too fast or too strongly? … Is it possible to suggest that we owe a great deal to all those stubborn sectarians and tireless strikers, those invaders of our factories and our streets who caused disorder, the obdurate who endlessly demanded reforms and dreamed of revolution, the Marxists, at odds with history, who prevented capitalism from sleeping soundly?’

The ‘end of communism’ seemed to settle the great debate that opposed the main currents of the international left after the Russian Revolution, the defeat of one of the protagonists entailing the victory of the other, social democracy’s revenge on its boisterous sibling. That triumph was short-lived. The centenary of the storming of the Winter Palace is coinciding with a reversal of fortune for the reformist current. The Clinton dynasty has been swept away; Tony Blair, Felipe González and Gerhard Schröder have sailed away to make money, not to mention François Hollande who could not even run again. At the same time, a form of impatience, of radicalism, has been reborn — in their countries and beyond.

Shortly before the celebration, which was more like a funeral, of the bicentenary of the French Revolution of 1789, the Socialist Michel Rocard confided that ‘revolution is dangerous and if one can do without it, so much the better’ (9). Nearly 40 years later, globalisation has prevailed, yet ghosts have returned, and the revolution’s mummy is stirring in its tomb.


(1) Lenin, 24 June 1917. Quoted in Victor Serge, Leninin 1917 (1924).

(2) Lenin, ‘Leftwing’ Communism: an Infantile Disorder, (1920).

(3) See Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century, Verso, London, 2005, and Eric Hobsbawm, Marx et l’histoire (Marx and History), Demopolis, Paris, 2008.

(4) Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958.

(5) Julian Mischi, Le Communisme désarmé: Le PCF et les classes populaires depuis les années 1970 (Communism Disarmed), Agone, Marseilles, 2014.

(6) See Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: the Short Twentieth Century (1914-1991),Michael Joseph, London, 1994.

(7) Perry Anderson, ‘Renewals’, New Left Review, n°1, London, January-February 2000.

(8) Le Monde, 21 July 2016.

(9) Quoted in Eric Hobsbawm, Echoes of the Marseillaise: Two Centuries Look Back on the French Revolution, Verso, London, 1990.

This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.

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Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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