1917, a Socialist History Society collection of essays, pays powerful testimony to the power of socialist revolution to change the world, finds 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, yet the essays collected in this volume manage to add new perspectives to our understanding of 1917. Taken as a whole, the book gives a powerful sense of how the Russian Revolution inspired workers around the world, and how it recast attitudes towards art, the family and to the human personality itself. Editor David Morgan’s claim that, ‘No area of social life and no region of the world was left untouched by the political transformation that unfolded in Russia’, is supported by the essays which follow. However, while all the contributors testify to the enormous impact of 1917 on different counties and on different aspects of society, some contributions appear less certain of how the methods of organising established by the revolution should be interpreted today.

Willie Thompson writes that the Russian Revolution was, ‘the pivotal event of the 20th century’. He traces the differences and similarities between the Revolution of 1905 and 1917, focusing on how the involvement of soldiers and sailors in the soviets leant them a crucial military presence. The impact of the war created the potential for the revolution of 1917 to be the opening act in a world revolution. Communist organisations were established in virtually every European country and in China, the US, India and South Africa. The October Revolution generated a spirit of solidarity amongst 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 split and fissures, yet, as Francis King points out, the pull towards unity was also powerful and most significant socialist organisations had affiliated to the Second International before World War One. This International collapsed when most of its leading figures capitulated to the nationalism of their own ruling classes in 1914. The Russian Revolution initially inspired socialists of all persuasions and it was vital that the revolution spread beyond devastated Russia’s borders. The Bolsheviks reconstructed the International, which became known as the Comintern, and sought to drive a wedge between the revolutionaries and the reformists who opposed the spread of the revolution.

The experience of the German and Hungarian Revolutions confirmed to the Bolsheviks that they needed to combat reformism actively. Francis King is critical of this strategy, suggesting that a united socialist movement would have been more effective at challenging the rise of the Nazis, although he does not develop his argument. An alternative to the idea of organisational compromise between reform and revolution can be found in the strategy followed by Trotskyists during the 1930s was based on organisational independence from reformists, combined with a united front with all those who wished to defeat the Nazis on the streets and in the work places.  

Much contemporary discussion of 1917 focuses on the figure of Lenin, or, as Mike Maiken-Waite, writes, the ‘many Lenin’s of 1917’. His essay engages with 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 thus provoked little or no criticism from party members. The infallible Lenin who foresaw all and predicted all was a Stalinist myth. Understanding Lenin requires understanding the political context in which he was operating, who his opponents were, and what he was seeking to achieve.

An essay by John S Partington focuses on another great revolutionary, the fascinating life German socialist, Clara Zetkin. Zetkin was a close friend and comrade of Rosa Luxemburg. She established German socialist women’s organisations, opposed World War One, 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 Sparticists’, which argued that, ‘if your governing classes succeed in strangling the proletarian revolution, in Germany and in Russia, they will turn against you with a double fury’ (p.60).

She was a Communist Party MP from 1920 to 1933 when the Nazi dictatorship began. Zetkin wrote widely on how the Soviet government granted women legal equality and attempted to create alternatives to the private family structure. Zetkin explained how equality for women was not just recognised in the constitutional sphere or the family sphere, but in ‘all spheres of social life’. Zetkin criticised the erosion of worker’s power following the death of Lenin 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 else to go.

Two essays explore impact of Russian Revolution on Italy and Germany. Despite initial ignorance over what had actually happened in Russia, the revolution had a huge impact in Italy where alienation from the national regime combined with rising protests against the war and associated hardships. 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 fierce debates between reformists and revolutionaries as other movements, and the Communists split away 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 by the end of 1918 with the wave of strikes and the naval mutiny. However, the author’s assessment of the threat is contradictory. On the one hand, she quotes observers who feared the outbreak of a German October, on the other, she gives an unsourced quotation: ‘the entire people are against Bolshevism’ (p.43). Boak also appears to justify the SPD’s leadership’s role in the early months of 1919:

‘Some historians have criticised the SPD for failing to carry out root and branch reform of the civil service and the military, but Ebert’s priority was to maintain law and order and food supplies, to ensure an orderly demobilisation, prevent a Spartacist revolution and ensure the Entente did not invade’ (p.43).

The problem with this is that German society was increasingly polarised between the military high command and the worker’s movement. The SPD leaders were the only ones apart from the revolutionaries who could attract support from the radicalising workers and soldiers. They chose to ‘maintain order’ by concluding secret deals with the hated military high command and, most disastrously, by drawing the most bitter and brutalised sections of the defeated German Army into the counter-revolutionary Freikorps paramilitaries.

The SPD’s home secretary, Gustav Noske, unleashed the Freikorps on Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht, who were murdered in January 1919, and then on the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic later on that year. Yet, when the moderate socialists had outlived their usefulness, the German military and the old order they represented were happy to dispense with first the SPD government and then later on with 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 last two essays are testimony to the way in which 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 Russian women’s poetry goes beyond the familiar work of Vladimir Mayakovsky and gives a short taste of the life and work of some remarkable female poets. The individual creative urge combined with political enthusiasm and new possibilities to inspire some great female writers, such as Teffi and Lusik Livisinova, who was murdered by counter revolutionaries in Moscow in October 1917. She was nineteen-years old.

Another fascinating dimension of the intellectual impact of 1917 is outlined in the final essay which traces the impact of the Russian Revolution on Freud and psychoanalysis: ‘A revolution created the social conditions where 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, such as Carl Jung’s pupil Sabina Spelrein and Vera Schmidt, worked in the field of child therapy. The Free-Clinics Movement sought to treat those suffering from the traumas of the First World War. Clinics in ten cities across Europe were established in a spirit of radicalism. According to one writer quoted, psychoanalysis, ‘represented human liberation, social empowerment and freedom from bourgeois convention’ (p.105).

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

Judy Cox

Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.

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