It’s testament to the impact the events of October 1917 had on the wider world that the idealistic concept of a society founded on the blueprint laid out by Marx in the nineteenth century survived the abuses of that blueprint by his ideological heirs. Stalin’s purges of the 1930s were overlooked by the left in the west with the same convenient nonchalance that enabled Che Guevara to become a pop cultural icon in the 60s and kept Trotsky a cult hero; even Mao could be held up as a symbol of revolution in 1968, regardless of the millions of innocent lives being lost in China at that very moment. Perhaps it’s a pointer to the dispossessed and dissatisfied that capitalism leaves in its wake that the search for an alternative inevitably led to the only proven alternative available for decades. At least there was an alternative available then.
Karl Marx was a noted admirer of Dickens in his day, praising the great fictional chronicler of the underclass at a time when the feudal societies of Europe and their belief in preordained Providence still held sway, despite the upsets of 1848; indeed, there’s a great deal in the Communist Manifesto that’s hard to disagree with, even now. The general gist of Marx’s radical rewrite of a society’s structure was seized upon as a viable solution to the failings of the decrepit autocracy that had governed the huge landmass of Russia for centuries in 1917, and it’s no surprise that this naturally excited outside observers, just as similar overseas events had in 1776 and 1789 respectively.
Ironically, it was the First World War – still a year away from the Armistice in 1917 – that dealt the killer blow to the old order rather than the efforts of Lenin. Of the four great Empires that entered into conflict in the summer of 1914 – Britain, Russia, Austro-Hungary and the Ottomans – only the British model survived intact after guns fell silent on the Western Front. Besides, there had been warning signs for years that the hereditary rule of the Tsars was something that couldn’t be sustained indefinitely; when the last Romanov ruler appealed to his cousin King George V for sanctuary following the sudden loss of his Absolutist privileges, it was telling that the constitutional British sovereign refused to help.
Just as the Declaration of Independence in 1776 didn’t abruptly curtail British rule of the 13 Colonies and the battle for them staggered on for another seven years, the October Revolution of 1917 didn’t transform Russia into a socialist state overnight. It took a further five years and a bloody civil war before the formation of the Soviet Union; the period of the so-called Red Terror that echoed the Terror following the French Revolution saw tactics of brutality for dispensing with enemies of the Bolsheviks that exceeded the far-from humane punishment practices of the Tsar, and it needs to be noted that this was undertaken on Lenin’s watch. However, when Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov died at the relatively young age of 53 in 1924, his deathbed reservations over his successor Stalin reflect concerns that Marx’s philosophies were poised to be further discarded in favour of a repressive, authoritarian regime that took the old order to a new level of state control over the individual.
The novelty of – on paper, at least – a Communist State that challenged both the democratic western models of the UK and (particularly) the US remained an alluring alternative to idealistic dreamers during the post-war era; this could encompass everyone from the Cambridge Spies to the counter-cultural figureheads of the 60s and 70s. It’s possible that many of these university-educated radicals were merely revelling in annoying their middle-class conservative parents; after all, the electorate as a whole in this country has always rejected the most extreme forms of Marxism, favouring a moderate compromise whenever it has lurched to the left, as in 1964 and 1974.
It’s also worth noting how the current crop of adolescent Corbynistas fail to see the ironies inherent in their anti-capitalist agenda when queuing up for a McDonald’s whilst scanning their Smartphones fresh from the latest march through Central London; perhaps it’s as symbolic of the times we live in as the fact that The Ramones have been reduced to a T-shirt brand worn by those who’ve never so much as whistled ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’. In the twenty-first century, everything that once meant anything has been marketed as a fashion statement for those members of the masses who seek to make an all-surface/no-substance point whilst imagining they’re somehow smashing the system. In a way, it’s no different from how a long-dead Hollywood star such as James Dean was sold as an eternal icon of cool for the generation that came of age in the 80s. As Jim Lea of Slade said in ‘Flame’, 1974’s seminal cinematic document of the rise and fall of Rock as an art-form distinguishable from the crassness of the advertising industry, ‘I’m no bloody fish-finger!’ In 2017, all heroes are fish-fingers.
A hundred years on from the October Revolution, we now have the knowledge of how those initial admirable ideals were corrupted by the seduction of absolute power, and we have the depressing evidence of how capitalism triumphs all, regardless of the efforts of Cuba, China and Venezuela. It’s a sobering realisation that what could, and should, have been a welcome respite from the often appalling process of how capitalism crushes the individual has simply shown that avaricious human nature dictates the outcome of each ideological advance so that it always reverts to type. We desperately need an alternative, but it seems our species is incapable of coming up with one.
© The Editor