Lindsey German's pick of novels set in revolutionary times
Spanish revolution and civil war 1936
The great cause of the 1930s against fascism saw thousands of international volunteers go to fight in Spain and led to a number of good novels. Try Days of Hope by Andre Malraux, Hermanos by William Herrick and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. The first two in particular give the sense of how important this fight was for a generation, how it was inspired by the idea of socialism as the only defence against fascism – and how and why this revolution ended in bloody defeat.
Mexican revolution 1910
The astonishing six ‘Jungle novels’ by B. Traven portray the conditions which gave rise to the revolution from the point of view of the labourers in the mahogany camps in southern Mexico. They work in almost unbelievably awful conditions but find ways to fight back. My favourite is Rebellion of the Hanged and Traven has a great writing style. His own life could make a novel – a mysterious figure generally reckoned to be Ret Marut, an anarchist involved in the 1919 Munich soviet, escaped after being sentenced to death, and left Europe for Mexico in the 1920s. His most famous book is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which was made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart.
German revolution 1918-19
The First World War was ended in revolution. The series November 1918: A German Revolution by Alfred Doblin tell the inspiring story of the overthrow of the old empire, the new republic and the uprising in 1919 led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who were both murdered by the far-right Freikorps in the course of it. The defeat of the revolution meant the fledgling revolution in Russia remained isolated and eventually defeated and made the eventual rise of fascism more likely. Doblin also wrote Berlin Alexanderplatz which describes exactly the desperation and misery of Germany in the late 1920s.
Russian revolution 1917
There’s so much written about the Russian revolution that picking a couple of novels is hard. I would recommend anything by Victor Serge (this applies to non-fiction as well – he was a stunning writer). Some of the best are Conquered City set in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in 1919 during the civil war and about the Red and White terrors. There’s also Birth of Our Power and the very absorbing The Case of Comrade Tulayev, set at the time of the purges. Serge was driven out of Russia through persecution but never lost his revolutionary spirit. Also worth reading is Alexandra Kollontai Love of Worker Bees. It’s about sexual and personal relationships in a time of revolution.
French revolution 1789
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel tells the story of this revolution – central to the overthrow of the old feudal order in Europe -through the eyes of some of its major figures, in particular Georges Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins. If you like her book Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell, there is some of the same approach in this one, as she looks at the feelings and motives of these men, and how they combine politically to bring the revolution about. There is also feminist Marge Piercy’s novel on the same topic City of Darkness, City of Light – in my opinion not as good, but others disagree.
Chinese revolution 1925-27
La Condition Humaine (often goes by this title in English but sometimes translated as Man’s Fate) is a powerful novel by Andre Malraux written in the 1930s (and winner of the Prix Goncourt) about the crushing of the Communists in Shanghai 1927 by the nationalist Kuomintang, with whom they had previously been in alliance. If you are unfamiliar with the huge struggles of the Chinese working class and their defeat you might want to also read the excellent non-fiction account of those years written in 1938 by US socialist Harold Isaacs The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. Its description of Shanghai in those years takes your breath away – and there’s a foreword by Leon Trotsky.
English revolution 1641-49
There are quite a few novels set in this period, when the world was ‘turned upside down’, many of them not great. Montague Slater’s Englishmen with Swords is a very good novel written in the form of the journal of Gilbert Mabbott, clerk to General Fairfax’s secretary. He is sympathetic to the Levellers and tells the story from the ordinary person’s point of view. By the time Slater depicts, there is discontent in the army and a growing surge of anger against the king. We know where that ended. Slater also wrote the libretto to Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.
German revolution 1848
Marx and Engels learnt what they knew about revolution in this huge wave which swept Europe. Their exile in Britain for the rest of their lives followed the revolutionary activities in 1848-49. The Lenz Papers by Stefan Heym is a major work by the German writer focusing on the 1849 revolutionary war in Baden, south west Germany, and featuring a range of characters fighting to overthrow the old order. Marx and Engels feature in the narrative, and Engels was involved in the fighting there.
Iranian revolution 1979
I have to confess that I have not read the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, but it comes with good recommendations. It’s a family story about resistance and repression in Iran after the revolution. The author comes from a Marxist family, was a teenager during the revolution, which overthrew the hated Shah, and was followed by a struggle between the left and the Islamic forces, which the latter won
Italian Risorgimento 1860
The 1848 revolutions included major uprisings in Italy which, like the others, ultimately failed. However, as in Germany, the push for national unification continued. Giuseppe Garibaldi landed in Sicily in May 1860 and set about challenging the old feudal monarchy. This is the background to the superb novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard, about the aristocrat Don Fabrizio who realises that the world is changing and that ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ The aristocracy allies with the new bourgeoisie to ensure that revolution is avoided.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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