1917: The Russian Revolution, reactions and impact – book review

1917, a collection of essays from the Socialist History Society, bears powerful testimony to the power of socialist revolution to change the world, according to Judy Cox

1917: The Russian Revolution, reactions and impact, ed. David Morgan (Socialist History Society Occasional Publication 41, 2017), 110pp.

This year has seen many new studies of the Russian Revolution, but the essays collected in this volume manage to add new insights to our understanding of 1917. Taken as a whole, the book gives a powerful insight into how the Russian Revolution has inspired workers around the world. world, and how it redefines attitudes toward art, family, and human personality itself. Editor David Morgan’s assertion that “no area of ​​social life or region of the world has been spared the political transformation that has unfolded in Russia” is supported by the essays that follow. However, while all contributors testify to the enormous impact of 1917 on different counties and on different aspects of society, some contributions seem less certain of how the modes of organization established by the revolution should be interpreted today.

Willie Thompson writes that the Russian Revolution was “the pivotal event of the 20th century”. It traces the differences and similarities between the Revolution of 1905 and 1917, focusing on how the involvement of soldiers and sailors in the soviets gained them a crucial military presence. The impact of the war created the potential for the 1917 revolution to be the opening act of a world revolution. Communist organizations were established in virtually all European countries and in China, the United States, India and South Africa. The October Revolution generated a spirit of solidarity among British workers and socialists, but only a few sought to emulate its example by creating a British Communist Party.

The socialist movement had a long history of splits and fissures, but, as Francis King points out, the tendency towards unity was also powerful, and the most important socialist organizations had affiliated with the Second International before World War I. . This International collapsed when most of its leaders capitulated to the nationalism of their own ruling classes in 1914. The Russian Revolution first inspired socialists of all persuasions and it was vital that the revolution spread beyond beyond the devastated borders of Russia. The Bolsheviks rebuilt the International, known as the Comintern, and sought to drive a wedge between revolutionaries and reformists who opposed the spread of revolution.

The experience of the German and Hungarian revolutions confirmed to the Bolsheviks that they should actively fight reformism. Francis King criticizes this strategy, suggesting that a united socialist movement would have been more effective in challenging the rise of the Nazis, although he does not elaborate on his argument. An alternative to the idea of ​​an organizational compromise between reform and revolution can be found in the strategy followed by the Trotskyists in the 1930s, based on organizational independence from the reformists, combined with a united front with all those who wanted to defeat the Nazis on the streets and in the workplace.

Much of the contemporary discussion of 1917 focuses on the figure of Lenin or, as Mike Maiken-Waite writes, the “many Lenins of 1917”. His essay addresses recent reassessments of Lenin’s role in 1917, such as Lars T. Lih’s work on Lenin’s ‘April Thesis’ in which he argues that Lenin’s denunciation of the Provisional Government was not a controversial political bombshell but was actually in line with Bolshevik thinking and therefore drew little or no criticism from party members. The infallible Lenin who foresaw everything and predicted everything was a Stalinist myth. To understand Lenin, one must understand the political context in which he operated, who his opponents were, and what he sought to achieve.

An essay by John S Partington focuses on another great revolutionary, the fascinating German socialist Clara Zetkin. Zetkin was a close friend and comrade of Rosa Luxemburg. She established German socialist women’s organizations, opposed World War I, and welcomed the October Revolution as an event of enormous historical and global significance. In January 1919, Zetkin, along with Luxemburg and Leibneckt, published the “Manifesto of the German Spartans”, which argued that “if your ruling classes succeed in strangling the proletarian revolution, in Germany and Russia, they will turn against you with double fury (p.60).

She was a Communist Party deputy from 1920 to 1933, when the Nazi dictatorship began. Zetkin wrote extensively about how the Soviet government granted women legal equality and attempted to create alternatives to the private family structure. Zetkin explained how women’s equality was not only recognized in the constitutional sphere or the family sphere, but in “all spheres of social life”. Zetkin criticized the erosion of workers’ power after Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power, but she never left the Communist Party. As Partington suggests, having broken with the SPD in March 1919, she had nowhere to go.

Two essays explore the impact of the Russian Revolution on Italy and Germany. Despite initial ignorance of what had really happened in Russia, the revolution had a huge impact in Italy where alienation from the national regime combined with growing protests against the war and the hardships associated with it. Turin was at the heart of the anti-war movement and the Bienno Rosso (1919-20) which culminated in the Turin Uprising of April 1920. The Italian socialist movement witnessed the same bitter debates between reformists and revolutionaries as other movements , and the Communists separated in January 1921.

Helen Boak’s essay on Germany draws on a wide range of sources to demonstrate how a fully socialist revolution was a real possibility at the end of 1918 with the wave of strikes and the naval mutiny. However, the author’s threat assessment is contradictory. On the one hand, she quotes observers who feared the outbreak of a German October, on the other, she gives an unsourced quote: “all the people are against Bolshevism” (p.43). Boak also seems to justify the leadership role of the SPD in the early months of 1919:

“Some historians have criticized the SPD for failing to fundamentally reform the civil service and the military, but Ebert’s priority was to maintain public order and the food supply, to secure a demobilization ordered, to prevent a Spartacist revolution and to ensure the Entente did not invade” (p.43).

The problem was that German society was increasingly polarized between the military high command and the labor movement. The leaders of the SPD were the only ones, apart from the revolutionaries, who could attract the support of workers and soldiers who were becoming radicalized. They chose to “maintain order” by making secret deals with the hated military high command and, most disastrously, by luring the most bitter and brutalized sections of the defeated German army into the counter-military paramilitaries. Freikorps revolutionaries.

SPD Interior Minister Gustav Noske launched the Freikorps on Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht, who were murdered in January 1919, and then on the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic later that year. Yet when the moderate socialists had lost their usefulness, the German military and the old order they represented were happy to do without first the SPD government and then later parliamentary democracy itself when they invited Hitler to become chancellor. By “maintaining order,” the SPD unleashed the very forces that would crush all democratic institutions in German society.

The final two essays bear witness to how the events of 1917 inspired new art and new ways of thinking. While the impact of the revolution on Russian visual art has been well documented, Greta Sykes’ excellent article on the poetry of Russian women goes beyond the familiar work of Vladimir Mayakovsky and provides a brief overview of the life and work of some remarkable female poets. Individual creative urge combined with political enthusiasm and new possibilities to inspire great female writers, such as Teffi and Lusik Livisinova, who was assassinated by counter-revolutionaries in Moscow in October 1917. She was nineteen .

Another fascinating dimension of the intellectual impact of 1917 is sketched in the final essay which traces the impact of the Russian Revolution on Freud and psychoanalysis: “A revolution created the social conditions in which happiness could more easily flourish (p.93). A number of prominent women were among the psychoanalysts who developed Freud’s theories in the Russian context. Many, like Carl Jung student Sabina Spelrein and Vera Schmidt, worked in the field of child therapy. The Free-Clinics Movement sought to treat people suffering from the traumas of the First World War. Clinics in ten cities across Europe were established in the spirit of radicalism. According to one quoted author, psychoanalysis “represented human liberation, social empowerment and liberation from bourgeois conventions” (p.105).

This collection of essays powerfully testifies to the power of socialist revolution to spread geographically and penetrate deeply into the lives and minds of those involved. Revolution changes everything, and the best of these essays help explain how, while other essays challenge those who want to emphasize the relevance of revolutionary change today.