REVOLUTION INC.

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

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THE (SOUTH) AMERICAN DREAM

Well, voting is underway today – in Venezuela. The troubled South American nation hasn’t gone to the polls to vote for a new government, however, but a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. A few months ago, when these proposals were unveiled, an unofficial referendum was held in which seven million Venezuelans voted; 98% of them rejected the proposals, but the proposals are going ahead regardless. And Remoaners think they’ve got it bad here. The move to convene the constituent assembly followed the decision in March when the Supreme Court announced its intentions to take over the National Assembly, which is run by the opposition. Although the protests that greeted this announcement caused it to be reversed, President Nicolas Maduro was accused by the opposition of attempting to stage a coup, and it is Maduro’s determination to carry on regardless that seems to be tearing Venezuela apart, even if problems run much deeper and go back much further.

Venezuela is hardly unique amongst South American countries in experiencing ongoing difficulties when it comes to democracy, but external events have also contributed to its current crisis. With 95% of its export revenues dependent on oil, the diminishing global value of the commodity has hit it hard. Widespread food shortages have been the most devastating manifestation of the economic collapse, with figures estimating almost 75% of the population has lost an average of 8.7 kg in weight in the absence of proper nutrition, whereas only 15% of medicines are readily available. The hyperinflation that has struck the nation as of last year has seen consumer prices rise by a staggering 800% and the annual inflation rate has been estimated at 160%. As if things weren’t bad enough, the country also has an appalling murder rate.

Anyone who happens to be a regular listener of Radio 4’s wonderfully eye-opening institution, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, will be familiar with Venezuela’s decline in recent years, though the powder keg atmosphere has finally erupted into violent protest this year and the country now appears to be at breaking point. The portrait of society in a state of collapse that ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ has documented often seems uncomfortably reminiscent of the chaotic circumstances in Germany after the First World War, the ones that created the conditions for the rise of Nazism.

Nicolas Maduro’s predecessor in the Presidential office, the late Hugo Chavez, had written the Venezuelan constitution in 1999 that his successor now seeks to overturn. Chavez used to carry the constitution around in his pocket, the ‘little blue book’ he was prone to brandishing whenever a camera was on hand. As architect of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, which had ideological allies in other Socialist South American nations such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, Chavez embodied the classic anti-imperialist revolutionary leader in a Castro vein that has regularly proven popular amongst those opposing the foreign policies of South America’s northern neighbour. When the great Socialist experiment invariably runs into a brick wall, blaming US intervention in the country’s affairs in remains the default excuse, and Chavez knew how to play that one.

The legacy of Chavez’s populist reforms, which were initiated when the Venezuelan economy was riding high on astronomical oil revenues – and included the nationalisation of major industries, excessive public spending, and the establishment of social programmes to improve the health and education of the population – began to reveal themselves in a less benign light at the point when Chavez lost his battle against cancer in 2013. They may have appeared admirable on paper, but Chavez failed to curb endemic corruption in public office and the police force, not to mention lowering the murder rate; a master of propaganda like Hugo Chavez was able to paper-over these cracks in his Socialist vision, but his successor has not been so fortunate. In many respects, Nicolas Maduro inherited an unenviable economic time-bomb not unlike the poisoned chalice Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown in 2007, though one suspects UK-style austerity would seem like affluence to most Venezuelans today.

Nicolas Maduro’s response to the crisis has been perceived as the President desperately trying to save his own skin rather than putting the interests of the country first. The aborted attempt to silence the opposition by taking over the National Assembly hasn’t deterred his determination to convene a constituent assembly that will have the power to override the democratic institution he failed to seize control of. Over 6,000 candidates are standing for the constituent assembly, none of them from the opposition, which has boycotted it wholesale. But while international condemnation of the election has been summarily ignored, one of Venezuela’s prominent neighbours Colombia – only just emerging from its own turbulence – has also refused to recognise the result when it comes.

The President hasn’t done himself any favours by cracking-down on more physical opposition to his power; since street protests began in April, upwards of 3,000 protestors have been detained and dozens have been killed. The most high-profile presence on these protests has belonged to ‘The Resistance’, a masked group claiming to be the protectors of peaceful protestors; they generally head the marches and are prepared to fight fire with fire when confronted by police and security guards. A ban on demonstrations hasn’t had much of an impact, with the barricades manned again on streets in the capital Caracas as the government continues to insist the constituent assembly will be the only solution to the anarchy of recent months. But Venezuela has so many more problems than that, and genuine solutions are in short supply.

© The Editor

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