The Radical Hopes of the Russian Revolution

Step into a respectable American bookstore today, and you’re likely to find a reflection of America’s version of the twentieth century. German and Russian history currently dominate history sections, but in very specific forms. Books like Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Martin Kitchen’s Speer: Hitler’s Architect, Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin—some old, some new, many written for popular audiences—move between the century’s titanic mass-murderers, their motley henchmen, and their masses of victims. Holocaust history often provides a thematic accent and an explicit connection to the present, as with Snyder’s Black Earth: Holocaust as History and Warning. Taken together, these books seem to remind us that any account of the twentieth century that does not emphasize authoritarianism will be complicit in creating a new wave of victims.

One hundred years after the world’s first socialist revolution, many accounts of the Russian Revolution fit into this narrative. From its beginnings, powers in Europe and the United States tried to cast the revolution as a minority coup. Sympathizers were criminalized and hunted, while its enemies in Russia were given military and financial support. Across a wide spectrum—from anti-Semitic fascists to liberal intellectuals to even non-communist leftists—the narrative set in that Bolshevism, the ideology of the victors of October 1917, was radically alien to European thought and politics—a pathology born of Russian barbarism, a threat to Western civilization. Its emblematic figures, Lenin in particular, were cast as cynical manipulators, totalitarian fanatics. Such narratives were ratified in 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall was seen by many as closing the book on the Bolshevik experiment and, with it, any future challenge to capitalism.

Yet there may be more to learn from the radical hopes of 1917, as we weather an era of sclerotic politics, restive masses, and ecological crisis. Both Tariq Ali’s new biography of Lenin and novelist China Miéville’s October reject the idea that the October revolution was bound to lead to terror and authoritarianism. “For a long time during the last century,” Ali writes, “those who honored Lenin largely ignored him.” His book aims to rescue Lenin from both liberal caricature and Soviet hagiography by recovering the realism and dynamism of his political thought. Meanwhile Miéville’s literary retelling—made to feel like a novel, but scrupulously sourced to real events—captures the vertigo of 1917’s encounter between massive historical forces, plunging us back into the heart of a far-reaching social upheaval, in which time flowed backward and forward even as it marched inexorably forward toward a future that was radically unknown. Like the “degradation” that followed it, the nature of the revolution was not “written in any stars.”

Both Ali and Miéville sense that our flattened, calcified versions of the revolutionary past have something to do with the absence of political imagination and emancipatory hope in the present. “Today’s dominant ideology and the power structures it defends are so hostile to the social and liberation struggles of the last century,” Ali writes, “that a recovery of as much historical and political memory as is feasible becomes an act of resistance.”

Ali writes with an eager haste, as if history’s timid awakening from a long, reactionary slumber has rendered him impatient to tell old stories anew. He frequently denounces academics for draining the vitality from revolutionary history, sometimes gratuitously. (Academic historians have asked similar questions: as Dan Edelstein, a historian of the French Revolution, put it in a 2012 article: “Do We Want a Revolution Without Revolution?”) Instead of academic debate, The Dilemmas of Lenin emphasizes the primary sources: letters, memories, political articles, and even poems from the actors in the Russian revolutionary drama themselves. In the process of revisiting these sources, Ali recovers a much-needed moral clarity about the history of European socialism.

That clarity is sharpest in his portrait of a nineteenth century soaked in the blood of the European working class. The rise of the workers’ movement was punctuated by frequent brutalization and defeat at the hands of states that would later hold themselves up as the champions of liberal democracy. In a sweeping section on the rise of working-class internationalism, world socialism, and European imperialism, Ali rediscovers the moral heroism of workers in Lancashire, for instance, who pressured the British Empire out of intervening on the side of the slaveholders in the American Civil War despite the fact that the absence of American cotton meant prolonged unemployment. In 1872, the Parisian working class organized itself to defend their city against Otto von Bismarck as the leaders of France went into hiding. As the European proletariat found itself alone against the most heavily weaponized engines of greed and violence in human history, revolution became a universal dream for a society of equality and peace.

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