As we approach the centenary of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, Insider has been thinking about the impact this event continues to have on politics and society today. It is especially relevant in the context of today’s polarisation of politics, so perhaps it’s a fitting date on which to paraphrase Karl Marx: “A spectre is haunting the world: the spectre of October."
Adrian Wooldridge, a champion of big-business orthodoxy, wrote in the Economist recently that “the similarities between the collapse of the liberal order in 1917 and today are stark.” On this occasion, however, he notes that “the first shots are being fired by the right rather than the left.” This was in the aftermath of the election of Trump and breakthroughs for other xenophobic political figures in Europe. Since then, however, we have seen the electoral earthquake caused by Jeremy Corbyn’s combative left manifesto in Britain. Similar features of left resurgence are seen in France, Spain, Portugal, the USA, and elsewhere, including Ireland.
The same spectre haunts the Dáil, where the Taoiseach recently went on a bizarre rant against the Russian Revolution. Varadkar felt it necessary to drag in the topic of the Russian Revolution, denounce it as “evil” and proceed to pontificate on the moral failings of “the left”. The focus of his ire was Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger who had simply asked Varadkar if he would stand in solidarity with LGBTQ people in the US against the homophobic Trump regime. In essence, what the Taoiseach was attempting to do was to equate Coppinger’s support for the Russian Revolution with the horrors of Stalinism, in a ridiculous attempt to dodge the question.
Insider has noticed echoes of October here in Galway, too. For instance, when Insider was enjoying Pride 2017 a few months ago, it brought to mind an aspect of the Russian Revolution that may come as a surprise to many who, like Leo Varadkar, try to draw an imaginary line from Lenin and Trotsky to the Stalinist bureaucracy that arose later.
The Soviet Family Code issued after the October Revolution made Russia the first country in the world to explicitly decriminalise sex between men, something that did not happen in Ireland until the 1990s! Soviet citizens could change the gender on their passports at will, and gender reassignment surgery and same-sex marriage took place. What a tragic contrast to the homophobic outrages of the regressive Russian government today.
Fine Gael TDs seem very proud of themselves for appointing the above-mentioned Leo Varadkar as taoiseach. Insider would like to put this into perspective. The first Soviet foreign minister was Grigory Chicherin, an openly gay man. Chicherin was Soviet Russia’s face to the world, a defiant and combative figure who frequently laid into the British government for denying self-determination to its imperial subjects and was consequently widely-admired in Ireland.
The Bolshevik revolutionaries also had one of Europe’s first female government ministers, Alexandra Kollontai. Under her stewardship communal laundries, kitchens, and childcare facilities lifted the burden of housework off women, allowing them to work, study, and engage in politics. Divorce and contraception were made easily available. With the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment gathering steam in Ireland, it is worth remembering that in Russia, previously a church-dominated society, one of the biggest impacts of the revolution on women was to make abortion easily accessible.
In 2017, people are increasingly impatient with elections and parliaments that do not seem to represent them, from the ultra-bureaucratic European Union to the Dáil, and even to the local councils here in Galway. In its early years, the Russian Revolution strove to democratise society and genuinely hold power to account. Workers’ and peasants’ councils, or 'soviets', were a form of participatory democracy. Delegates were elected directly from the workbench, the field, or the barracks, to be recalled by their voters and subject to new elections if they failed to live up to their mandate.
The idea of soviet democracy quickly spread across the world. Only an hour’s drive away from us here in Galway, the Limerick Soviet briefly ruled in April 1919 and was one of many Irish “soviets”. Soviet democracy was a far cry from our so-called democracy today where career politicians say whatever it takes to gain power, then once elected they can roll back on their promises while raking in a salary several times that of the average worker.
The revolution released a tidal wave of artistic innovation in Russia. For over a decade following the revolution the Russian avant garde made major advances in painting, design, and architecture that helped shape artistic movements throughout the world over the course of the 20th century, before the Stalinist counter-revolution halted it and imposed its own “socialist realist” style upon artists. Again and again, we find that Russia 1917 is strangely relevant to Galway today, especially with the 2020 City of Culture on the horizon.
Insider has painted a picture of artistic revolution and sexual liberation a century ago in Russia. This may come as a surprise to many who are more used to the of picture of stuffy conformity and violent repression. This more negative image, however, does have a basis in reality. Stalin and his bureaucratic ruling elite reversed these gains on women’s and LGBTQ rights in the 1930s. Many Galway people with Eastern European backgrounds will know all too well the national oppression and dictatorship that characterised the Stalinist one-party states.
The stagnant Stalinist economies of the 1980s are still within living memory, but no serious historian disputes the fact of the incredible rates of economic growth and the vast improvements in living standards that took place throughout the five decades following 1917. A semi-feudal, agrarian ,country was transformed into the world’s second industrial power. This was thanks to economic planning and public ownership – and no thanks to the dead weight of the bureaucracy, a parasite that eventually consumed its host in the 1980s.
Insider is not in the business of romanticising history. Following the Russian Revolution came a very terrible civil war. European heads of state, including Churchill, coordinated a huge alliance of empires to “strangle Bolshevism in its cradle". Russia’s experiment in public ownership, equality, and popular democracy angered the old imperialists. They wanted to prevent workers, women, and young people of other countries from getting any ideas. They poured money, guns, ammunition, and supplies into the hands of the minority in Russia who wanted to restore the old regime.
The civil war in the former Russian Empire starved, scattered, and decimated the workers who had made the revolution. Those wondering how a mass movement led by fearless radicals turned in the space of 10 years into the Stalinist monolith should start by looking at this. In examining how soviet democracy turned to dictatorship, it is much more fruitful to look at socio-economic factors such as Russia’s isolation, its semi-feudal economy, and the devastation caused by nearly a decade of continuous war.
Around 10 years ago global capitalism seemed invincible on the surface, but the centenary of October 1917 finds us in a time of turmoil, with the “free” capitalist market posing more questions than answers. On the other hand, we find in the most unexpected places that the echoes of a century-old revolution are chiming in concord with the thoughts, ideas, and aspirations of growing numbers of people today.