This year is the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution which brought about the USSR and as usual I’ve seen the same banal hit pieces and smug denunciations of Marxism bandied about on social media that I do every year around this time. “Communism failed, just look at the Soviet Union.”
Of course nothing is said about the horror that Russia was for most of its people under Czarist dictatorship for three centuries. Or that after the Czar was jettisoned the new coalition had to cope with their legacy of crushing poverty, illiteracy and famine. Or that they had to deal with the onslaught of foreign invasions, embargoes, blockades by the far wealthier empires of Europe and the US, and lost over 20 million people thanks to Nazi barbarism. Or that despite all of this they managed to become a super power in just a matter of decades.
This kind of thing is unsurprising to many of us. After all, poor and obtuse analysis of historical movements are a dime a dozen, particularly in the US where the public discourse is tightly managed and capitalism has been elevated to religious status. But I’ve noticed something different of late. The arguments aren’t flying as much as they used to except in elitist circles.
Maybe this is due to greater awareness of how capitalism ultimately always benefits the .01% to the detriment of the rest of us, and that now a mere handful of men own as much wealth as half of all humanity on earth. Maybe it is because more people are realizing their enslavement under a system of perpetual credit debt, student loans, healthcare costs and a brutalizing judicial and police state which is all too eager to crush dissent. Perhaps this is thanks to the fact that the biosphere has been brought to the brink of destruction thanks to the rampant greed of corporations which commit ecocide with impunity.
Whatever the reason might be it is, nonetheless, refreshing. As the great Rosa Luxemburg said: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” I would only add that sometimes the forces of history compel us to move and that we should be grateful when this happens in a manner that shows us both our power and agency at once.
Soviet Russia was a long, painful experiment in socio-economic justice that was far from perfect. In fact many pages of this legacy were undeniably written with the cruel ink of totalitarianism, including a bloody counter-revolution that undid much of the progress made by the early soviets. But it gave us a glimpse into the potential of ordinary people to be agents of societal and civilisational change. If there is anything we can glean from this remembrance 100 years later is that when the oppressed, marginalized and disenfranchised unite in solidarity against tyranny they are far more powerful than the powers that be would ever want them to realize.
Kenn Orphan 2017
(Title artwork for this essay is“The Bolshevik,” 1920, by Boris Kustodiev. Oil on canvas. 101 x 140.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)