The revolution we had to have

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“Why are you being burdened with these trifles?!”

 — From volume 39 of Lenin: Collected Works (Progress Press)*

Coming into Shanghai from the airport, five years ago, a cab from the Maglev train depot (400km/h), going down the Bund, the European concession meticulously restored. Across the river, Lujiazui, Deng Xiaoping’s hundred-storeys high, new financial district. And against one glittering sliver, projected, an enormous red hammer-and-sickle. Marking the CCP’s 90th anniversary. This is actual, I thought, but it feels unreal, an alt-reality I’ve slipped into. Why does it feel so?

Easy answer: China, whatever its achievements, was never the main game. Its almost unimaginably brutal and chaotic path to … whatever the hell it is, was not what was sought. This is the other future imagined, arising from the USSR, that now half-forgotten husk, and the revolution that made it. Redworld, as if it had just kept on going, for better and worse, and taken the whole planet. Implausible? Far less so than the revolution that made it possible.

The story so far: the Bolsheviks, a de facto separate party among the Russian Marxists, have taken power in St Petersburg, nine months after the country’s “February” revolution — nine months in which the “provisional” government delayed on peace negotiations, and then launched a fresh military offensive, propelling hundreds of thousands to join the Bolsheviks, the sole party to promise immediate peace, land reform for peasants, and bread for the starving cities.

In the weeks and months following the seizure of power, the Bolsheviks will enter an alliance with the “Left SRs”, a party representing peasants; but they will close down the multi-party constituent assembly, ban most newspapers by rival groups, institute a reign of terror that will see at least 12,000 executed through 1917-18.

With Lenin’s highly utopian State and Revolution (“socialism in six months!”) short book as a guide, they will create a command economy, that they will abandon in 1920, re-introducing a mixed economy (the “NEP”). Throughout this, a series of liberations: land distributed, the eight-hour day, legal divorce, abortion, abolition of anti-Jewish laws, legalised homosexuality, immediate health, education and literacy programs, Finland and other Tsarist possessions declaring independence. And yet more ambitious programs still: modern architecture, collective child-raising, the “proletkult” art movement, science turned to mass human betterment on an organised scale.

Prior to passing the usual empyrean moral-political judgements on people caught in the chaos of world upheaval in 1917, it is worth taking a step back and noting how particular all this is. The Bolsheviks had separated themselves as a faction in 1903, creating a tight structure of professional revolutionaries. They had subsequently argued that such a vanguard was necessary to create workers consciousness; after a failed revolution in 1905, they had fallen in disarray, and one faction of the faction, the “Vpered” group (based in exile on the Isle of Capri, because why not?) had become, de facto, post-Marxist, arguing for the scientific raising up of humanity to superhuman status, and creating revolution through “God Building”, the political worship of humanity — with a few glances at Nietzsche and “cosmism”, a mystical movement bent on colonising space, and scientifically raising the dead.

Lenin chased the “Vperod” group out of the party, but by 1917, he was infused with a degree of their spirit; revolution in Russia would not be a mere provincial event. In the most contradicted imperial society, the most radical European Marxist faction was to take power, and supercharge human History. That is exactly how it happened, a testament to the fact that the right analysis of a situation will get you a long way (and German imperial money will take you the rest, but that’s for later).

By 1921, the Bolsheviks — now the Communists — had made a stab at immediate communisation of the economy, the transformation of the human spirit, the sowing of revolution worldwide — via the new established Comintern, the Communist International — and, via a conference of oppressed peoples in Baku, sewn the idea that “jihad” against the imperial masters was akin to political revolution. Communist parties established around the world would supercharge the idea of women’s and “coloured” liberation amidst sluggish sexist, racist labour movements.

Back in the USSR, the mixed-economy “new Economic Policy” (NEP) would replace insta-communism — really, Marxism replacing a brief utopianism — and the economy would roar ahead in tandem with applied mass science in medicine, education and culture.

Lenin would argue this dual approach should continue for decades (the free-trade “Special Economic Zones” he established with US millionaire Armand Hammer was the beginnings of neoliberalism, discuss). After his death, the party’s “left” — hankering after immediate communisation — opposed it. Stalin crushed them, then took their policies and crushed the right.

Thus in 1928, the USSR of received image — tractors, dams, apple-cheeked children, gulags — came to bear. Prior to that, there were department store lingerie ads in Pravda. Capri triumphant! Lenin, the Father, embalmed in Red Square, waiting for the cosmists to invent the technology to revive him. Stalin, the Son, the one man who represents all humanity, the God Built. The Holy Ghost of the Comintern perfusing the world. Vperod (“forward!”) indeed.

So it has come to pass. So the questions began, and have not ceased for a century. Was it a catastrophe? Or would its absence have ensured a planet wholly ruled by imperialism, a total apartheid world, the squalor and de-development of Africa as opposed to the soaring rise of China whose policy, these past decades, has been Lenin’s NEP, given its proper run?

The question is always, which alt-reality are you in? For we live in the dystopias people read for a thrill in another reality: the world they can barely imagine, where relentless increases in productivity leave us working harder and more stretched, where movements of religious, science-denying hysterics capture power and drive the world to extinction, where a whole continent can be abandoned to AIDS, and magical notions of global debt can destroy whole social systems. Imagine. Imagine if that had happened! What would they project on the side of their buildings there?

NEXT: Intrigue and skulduggery


*In “Notes and Marginalia”, this was part of Lenin’s note to people’s commissar for foreign affairs Georgy Chicherin on a 1921 memo requesting ruling on a hotel booking for visiting dancer, Isadora Duncan.