(This is the first part in a 5-part series which examines the Russian Revolution and relies upon the new book A People’s History of the Russian Revolution.)
I started reading the mainstream media’s coverage of the Russian Revolution for the comedic value. I think France 24 has taken the cake with this penultimate sentence:
“The Revolution was a series of uprisings against unsatisfactory rule, similar to the civil unrest that swept Russia’s neighbour Ukraine in 2013-14 and saw its old president Victor Yanukovych flee across the border.”
The idea that there will be demonstrations around the world in 2113 to honor an uprising led by a chocolate billionaire, the US State Deparment’s Victoria “F*** the EU” Nuland and neo-Nazis is hilariously delusional.
But this would be a rather dull article if all I did was correct the bad journalism of my colleagues….
As I read more I realized how unfunny it all is: mainstream media coverage of the Russian Revolution is truly a one-sided abomination. I certainly expected the casual dismissal and facile conclusions designed to discredit Socialism, but I would not have expected that anti-Putin propaganda would actually be the primary propaganda goal.
The anti-Putin propaganda explicitly made for teachers to force on their students by The New York Times in this article is not just dangerous, but should be criminal due to its fomenting of anti-Russian xenophobia and hate-mongering among impressionable minors.
But this focus makes sense when one realizes this is capitalist media: they are inherently unable and unwilling to look at issues with an eye to the broad masses. This is why the overarching theme of the coverage – as it relates to 2017 – is geared towards one man: Putin.
And this is also why the overarching theme of the coverage – as it relates to 1917 – is geared towards one man: Lenin.
The “great man” theory of how history is created is the only theory that capitalism can promote, or even understand. “It all depended on Lenin,” is easily found literally in so-called “liberal media” like The New York Times, but it is also restated differently over and over across the West.
The sense of abomination increases as Lenin, like Putin today, becomes a catch-all boogeyman of truly dangerous proportions. That New York Times article I just linked to goes on to say: “Without Lenin there would have been no Hitler.”
This is when the laughter stops and the serious people turn away. The idea that Lenin, who came to power on a “stop the war” platform – which even exceeded the “redistribution of wealth” platform – is responsible for Hitler…that is beyond propaganda and slander and in some other realm altogether.
Our steps forward cannot be stopped no matter how much they lie
What is so heartening to see is that there is more and more new scholarship on socialist nations like the USSR, but also modern socialist nations like Iran, Cuba and China.
In short: there are now serious English-language journalists and writers who are openly committed to overturning the lies and propaganda which have dominated discussion of socialist nations in the 20th century. None of these people are permitted to work for mainstream media, of course, but it’s an important step.
This type of writing that is intended to set the record straight is epitomised by the title of one of them: China is Communist, Dammit! by the superb China-based geopolitical analyst Jeff J. Brown. The title seems to stem from the fact that capitalist Western media can never grant socialist ideas even the smallest sliver of success. Anti-socialist feeling has become so dominant and unreasoning that even the most obvious truths have to be not just restated, but defended forcefully, dammit!
Brown’s book merits further attention and your purchase, but we are focused here on the centennial of the Russian people’s revolution.
The new book A People’s History of the Russian Revolution (2017) is similarly essential reading for anyone who wants to understand democracy in the modern world. It does draw heavily from the 1,000+ page The History of The Russian Revolution by Trotsky (and why not), but it also provides an indispensable modern view and approach.
Truly, your views on economics can be checked at the door: this book is not proselytising for a return to fairer taxes on the rich because it focuses on that other half of the socialist ideal – the democratic devolving of power from the few to the many. This important pole of socialist thought – that the People want not just money but power/control – is even more completely ignored by the capitalist media than the economic pole.
In the complete opposite view of the Mainstream Media, the book examines the events of 1917 not by examining the actions of “the great man” Lenin, but by examining the cumulative actions of the tens of millions of equally great Russian human beings.
Buried in page 182 is perhaps the author’s raison d’être for writing the book, and this 5-part series as well:
“Right-wing historians often describe October as a Bolshevik ‘coup’ made possible by the ‘anarchy’ into which Russia had fallen by autumn 1917. The misunderstanding is profound. Their basic error is to view history from above, not below. What looks to them like ‘anarchy’ was, in fact, the leaching away of state authority and the rise of new organs of popular power. What they described as a ‘coup’ was, in fact, an expression of the democratic will of millions of workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants.”
Again, this book is about the political aspects of socialism and not the economic aspects. It is essential to remember that socialism stresses that devolving of power from the few to the many – from the central to the local -and is just as important as the sharing of wealth and the land.
So if it wasn’t ‘all just Lenin’, what is the correct history?
Lenin was in foreign or domestic exile for nearly all of 1917: saying he was the sole mover is like saying the Syrian exiles perfectly orchestrated the situation in Syria today (and we are quite fortunate that Syrian exiles cuddled by Washington did not succeed….)
The mainstream media portrays the Bolsheviks as being some sort of sect – a radical revolutionary group divorced from common society – which seized power in a coup, apparently with a shocked populace staring like uncomprehending cattle. (Just to gild the lily, The New York Times once again: “Bolshevism was a mind-set, an idiosyncratic culture with an intolerant paranoid worldview obsessed with abstruse Marxist ideology.”)
I would like to start at the end: the October Revolution, which mainstream media are compelled to mention, even if they are not compelled to understand it or present it fairly. This event is better and more accurately described as the “October Celebration”. The reason is that the revolution had already been taking place for months – the October Revolution was just a handover of power – the real revolution was in February, when power was handed from the Tsar to the bourgeois (West European democracy) Provisional Government. The October Celebration was the bloodless handover of power from the bourgeois to the People, which was an event far rarer than just a “revolution”.
“The insurrection found its way by moral power – by the overwhelming pressure of the great mass of democratic opinion organized in the Soviet (council) movement – and has thereby deceived generations of historians into mistaking the greatest popular revolution in history for a military coup. ‘(It) was not necessary to employ force’, explained Trotsky, ‘for there was no resistance. The insurrectionary masses lifted their elbows and pushed out the Lords of yesterday.’”
But back on the book’s very first page the author describes the formula of any successful popular revolution, just like the Iranian Revolution of 1979: “In essence, the Russian Revolution was an explosion of democracy and activity from below.”
Mainstream media and all bourgeois (US/West European) democracies have no interest in such explosions, and it is for this reason that they purposely distort not just the 1917 Russian Revolution but all anti-capitalist, pro-socialist, and anti-imperialist cultures. And they always will, because that is the only way they can try to preserve their status quo dominance.
The great thing about the Internet is that when people write about Cuba’s grassroots democratic model, or China’s obsessive public opinion polling and their dutiful governmental response, these truths and facts now make it around the world. It is truly a new world when we compare today with the dark ages of pre-internet information control. This contrasts sharply with the situation not just in 1979 but in 1917, as the author relates how back then “every political pamphlet was literally read to shreds” by a superbly-politicized populace.
The West in 2017 is told to be as apolitical as possible and that any dissenter is the enemy of all that is good and holy, but technology is outpacing culture. And the culture’s anti-socialist hysteria is also becoming complacent and self-satisfied. The author concurs:
“Since the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, archives have opened and scholarship has become more relaxed.”
Everything is relative: we are finally getting some good scholarship, as opposed to being thrown in jail and fired for promoting socialism. Capitalists love to talk about these socialists who killed right-wingers – they of course never talk about the capitalists who killed far more left-wingers….
Many people are unable to study a socialist country objectively, because they know that any objectivity might hurt their support of capitalism. But there is a simple reason why books like this one must be purchased and read and why most old scholarship (by bourgeois authors) on socialism must be rejected:
“This is because much of it is poor fare. The reason is political. Until the end of the Cold War, Western scholarship was dominated by a caricature of the Bolshevik Revolution which saw it as a ‘Leninist’ coup to install a dictatorship, while Eastern scholarship provided a distorted image of this character by proclaiming the monstrous Stalinist dictatorship of the 1930s to be a lineal descendent of the worker state of 1917– 21.”
Indeed, socialists are often just as guilty of the lack of cooperation and unity as capitalism instructs its followers to be.
But this book backs with facts what is obvious common sense: the revolution was achieved thanks to the cumulative efforts of millions of people. We must return again and again to this fundamental truth, not if we support the economic aspect of socialism but if we support modern democracy and not bourgeois (West European) democracy.
“But it would take time – time for the masses to learn from experience that the reformists did not represent their deepest aspirations. The advancing consciousness of the masses – moving from right to left during the eight months between February and October – would henceforward constitute the principal motor of the revolutionary process. Because it was fluid and fast-moving, the consciousness of the masses would repeatedly leap ahead of the representative bodies elected in an earlier phase of the revolution…. Again and again parties and assemblies lag behind the consciousness of active social forces. To understand that the Russian Revolution is to grasp the inner dynamics of a complex political mechanism in a state of perpetual motion.”
In the age of computers, block chain technology and modern opinion polling our governments can reflect the democratic will of the people better than ever. But bourgeois (US/West European) democracy is fundamentally constructed to obstruct this reflection, whereas socialist democracy embraces it. There should be no doubt about this, and this will not change: it is clear that socialist-inspired countries are moving towards greater democracy while bourgeois (US/West European) democracies see their democracy and their money narrow into smaller and smaller concentrations of hands.
Good scholarship is rare, but good mainstream journalism is far rarer
This article is nearly over, and stopping at the author’s declaration of how “To understand the Russian Revolution…” is an appropriate ending. But just because these “dynamics” are “complex” that does not mean they are impossible to understand. The author makes clear over and over: the Russian Revolution was an expression of popular will, with tens of millions of peasants, workers, soldiers and women all working ant-like to create a better anthill for themselves.
But given this complexity which directly opposes the capitalist worldview they had been force-fed their whole lives, we should not be very surprised that mainstream journalists at France 24 do such poor work. That article I linked to also does what most Western media do: quote the American reporter John Reed and his sensationalistic account of 1917. In this book he is described as “the drama-hungry journalist”, and that is a good way to describe the worst type, the most unserious type, of journalism. This is the specialty of capitalist media, after all, personified by the English: journalism which is designed to titillate, to dull the mind, to perpetuate the oppression of the 99%.
Let’s not forget that France 24 is, of course, way farther down on the journalism food chain than The New York Times. Sadly, there also exists Yahoo News and Huffington Post and the reactionary hillbilly columnist of your local newspaper, all of whom provide even worse nonsense on Russia (in 1917 and 2017), and which are read by even more people. They would do well to heed the words of a former peasant named Zemskov, who is quoted in the book:
“After all, you’re oppressing the people, and they have long known that you are riding on their back: the noble and emergent and the scholar and the poet and the journalist and the lawyer…. You’re all nothing but greedy predators making off with the products of our labor. And this is where the root of social evil lies.”
All of these professions have very real responsibilities, as real as an auto worker who has a responsibility to install a seat belt correctly. It is very easy for those of us in these professions to escape responsibility. Indeed, the entire notion of “objective journalism” is designed as just such an escape hatch.
Books like A People’s History of the Russian Revolution never make the author enough money to write a follow-up, but they are inevitably translated into dozens of languages. It should be an influential work because it focuses on the democratic imperatives of socialism, which can be entirely divorced theoretically from the more sensitive economic aspects.
This is the first in a 5-part series on the 1917 Russian Revolution which aims to put the role of the People first.
Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hoe you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
A People’s History of the Russian Revolution pits new scholarship vs. Mainstream Media
Who was not responsible of the Russian Revolution and who was?
The fascinating People’s account of how the Russian Revolution was won at street level
Why anti-socialists talk more about Lenin than even socialists
Iran’s 1979 Revolution picked up the People’s torch first lit in 1917 Russia