Remember the biggest ever revolt against war

November 6, 2017

On Saturday the UK will mark Armistice Day. An official cult of remembrance requires that this week people in the public eye – politicians, newsreaders, sports personalities and so on – wear the red poppy that commemorates British service personnel.

I am wearing the white poppy, that commemorates all the victims of all wars. It’s a white poppysocialist, anti-militarist tradition that I think should be spread more widely.

The horrible destruction in Syria, unleashed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to protect his power from a popular uprising and generalised into a multi-sided war, is reason enough to wear the white poppy.

And this year it can also serve as a reminder of the greatest popular anti-military uprising in history – in Russia in the summer of 1917.

The women workers of Petrograd (now St Petersburg) began the 1917 revolution in February, by striking and demonstrating against the first world war (in which Russia was allied with Britain and France) and the hardships it brought.

Soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, by refusing to fire on the protesters and pledging Read the rest of this entry »

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Voting as counter revolution

June 20, 2017

How the politicians who gave us the vote saw things one hundred years ago. A guest post by ANTI-WAR

One hundred years ago, the British ruling class decided to extend the vote to most women over 30, and to almost all working class men. By expanding the franchise from a minority to a majority of the adult population, they hoped to restore people’s faith in parliamentary government and thereby counter any revolutionary tendencies inspired by the Russian revolution. Sylvia Pankhurst, the feminist communist, put it this way in 1923:

The legal barriers to women’s participation in Parliament and its elections were not removed until the movement to abolish Parliament altogether had received the strong encouragement of witnessing the overthrow of Parliamentary Government in Russia and the setting up of Soviets. … The upholders of reaction … were by no means oblivious to the growth of Sovietism when they decided to popularise the old Parliamentary machine by giving to some women both votes and the right to be elected. Read the rest of this entry »


“The street has already spoken, gentlemen.” The Russian revolution, replayed in real time

March 10, 2017

The Russian revolution is unfolding in real time on its centenary, via Project 1917, an on-line serial set out like a social network.

The Russian version of Project 1917 has attracted more than a million subscribers since its launch in November last year. The English version started up last month.

All the material on Project 1917 – from diary entries, articles and letters, to photos, paintings and recordings – has been sourced from archives by a team of Russian journalists and historians. It “includes not a trace of invention”, the “About” page states.

This week is 100 years since the first revolution, triggered by women workers demonstrating on international women’s day. (That is, the February revolution, so-called because the tsarist empire was on the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere). And things are hotting up.

The entries for yesterday, 9 March, included ones from:

Alexander Spiridovich, a police general in the imperial guard, who wrote: “They sing revolutionary songs. Chants of ‘Down with the government!’, ‘Long live the republic’, ‘Down with war!’ can be heard.” As the police fought demonstrators, Cossack troops – who had always previously been loyal to the empire – stood aside, he noted. “The police are infuriated. One phrase was passed around among groups of dispersing workers: ‘the cossacks support us, the cossacks support the people!’.”

Maurice Paleologue, the French ambassador to the empire, who wrote: “This morning the excitement in industrial circles took a violent form. Many bakeries were looted, especially in the Viborg Quarter and Vassili-Ostrov. At several points the Cossacks charged the crowd and killed a number of workmen.”

■ And the Social Democrat (Menshevik) Nicolas Chkeidze, who would within days become the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, who wrote: “Disregard of streets is a feature of government and many among us. But the street has already spoken, gentlemen, and this street is now to be reckoned with.”

Project 1917 was set up by the journalist Mikhail Zygar, who is nobody’s puppet. Between 2010 and 2015 he was chief editor of Dozhd TV, one of the last outposts of opposition in Russian broadcast media and the target

Demonstrators in Petrograd (St Petersburg) during the February revolution. Photo: Project 1917.

of Kremlin-friendly witch-hunters. Before that he co-authored Gazprom: the New Russian Weapon, an account of political influence over Russia’s biggest company. His latest book All the Kremlin’s Men, about president Read the rest of this entry »


From the Russian revolution to socialism on Mars

April 4, 2016

What can be learned from the history of the Soviet Union, and its failure to break free from capitalism, about a future transition to a post-capitalist society? In Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: a guide to our future, the places he starts looking

Red Star by Aleksandr Bogdanov: the cover of an early edition

Red Star by Aleksandr Bogdanov: the cover of an early edition

are (i) Aleksandr Bogdanov’s utopian novel Red Star (downloadable here), and (ii) the Trotskyist opposition’s critique of Stalinist planning. I think he presents answers that are too easy. The histories of Russian socialism and Stalinist tyranny give us lessons that are richer, but also more difficult to access, than he suggests. Here are some thoughts provoked by chapter 8 of Postcapitalism, “On Transitions”.

Aleksandr Bogdanov’s utopian vision – set out in his 1909 novel Red Star, about a Russian communist who is invited to Mars, where a human-like race of people live in a socialist society – was not at odds with the mainstream of communist thought in the way that Paul suggests.

By portraying the communist future, Bogdanov, a member of the Bolshevik party led by Lenin, was “defying the conventions of his time”, Mason writes. “All wings of socialism were opposed to discussing castles in the air.” Bogdanov believed Read the rest of this entry »


How the Paris Communards made their lives luxurious

July 28, 2015

In her new book Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross argues that a rich legacy of ideas and practices developed during the Commune – the workers’ democracy

Demolition of the Colonne Vendôme by Paris Communards, 16 May 1871. The 44-metre-high column, which had a statue of Napoléon in Roman dress at the top, was rebuilt under the Third Republic. (Contemporary drawing, reproduced on UC Press site.)

Demolition of the Colonne Vendôme by Paris Communards, 16 May 1871. The 44-metre-high column, which had a statue of Napoléon in Roman dress at the top, was rebuilt under the Third Republic. (Contemporary drawing, reproduced on UC Press site.)

that ruled Paris for two-and-a-half months in 1871 before being violently suppressed –needs to be recovered for the twenty-first century. Here she discusses the book with Gabriel Levy.

Gabriel Levy: You urge the readers of Communal Luxury to look at the Paris Commune not as a precursor to the Soviet Union, and not as a precursor to the Third Republic in France. If it was not those things, what was it?  

Kristin Ross: Extricating the Commune from those two stories is an enormous challenge, in part because those two histories were the principal ways we had of understanding the Commune. They were the histories that claimed it. In each of these narratives the Commune was made to play an essentially edifying role, as though the Communards were martyrs to state socialism or martyrs to the French Republic. If you stop seeing what the insurgents did in this way – if you stop seeing them as martyrs, sacrificing themselves to the future – then suddenly a
whole new vista becomes available and you can begin to see their self-emancipation at a daily level. You are radically in their present. If you dislodge the event from those two historiographies, you are back in the day-to-day of the Communards, and it becomes possible to see, perhaps for the first time, Read the rest of this entry »


Revolutions and rose-tinted spectacles

July 27, 2015

In this guest post, ANTI-WAR points to the history of radical intellectuals embracing “revolutionary” regimes, and cautions against repeating those mistakes today

In the second year of the Great Leap Forward famine – in which perhaps 30 million died – Herbert

Herbert Read

Herbert Read

Read visited China on an official delegation. Read’s acceptance of a knighthood for his literary achievements had already discredited him amongst many anarchists. But, at the time of his visit in 1959, he was still the most prominent anarchist in Britain and his published writings had considerable influence on, amongst others, Murray Bookchin.[1]

Read’s “Letters from China” show how easy it is for a radical intellectual to get it completely wrong. The nearest comparable episode was in 1967 when Noam Chomsky used phrases such as ‘mutual aid’, ‘popular control’ and ‘nonviolence’ while referring to Mao’s collectivisation policies. (Later, in 1977-79, Chomsky was also reluctant to acknowledge the full horror of Pol Pot’s version of these policies. See “Chomsky on Cambodia” and here and here.)

These extracts are a timely reminder to be sceptical of any account that claims that the new Read the rest of this entry »


Russia and Ukraine: history called up on national service

July 9, 2015

People in Moscow may soon get a chance to vote to return a statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, to the plinth in Lubyanka square from which it was toppled in 1991.

The ballot – which will go ahead if an initiative group, sanctioned by the city council, collects 140,000-odd signatures supporting it – comes at a time when  Soviet symbols, especially second world war symbols, are being

This is not about him. Feliks Dzerzhinsky (centre) with a group of officers from the Cheka security service during the Russian civil war

This is not about him. Feliks Dzerzhinsky (centre) with a group of officers from the Cheka security service during the Russian civil war

called into service to justify Russian aggression against Ukraine. History is being mobilised to buttress the image of a strong Russian state, which president Vladimir Putin’s propagandists claim is a crucial bastion against western, above all American, geopolitical domination.

Dzerzhinsky, a Polish socialist freed from Moscow’s Butyrka prison during the 1917 revolution before taking charge of the Soviet state’s rudimentary security service, would be horrified; he despised all nationalisms great and small. But this is not about him. It’s about a statue that stood outside the security service’s headquarters where oppositionists and dissidents were detained from Dzerzhinsky’s time. After his death in 1926, and especially in the mid and late 1930s, the number of detainees swelled tens and hundreds of times over; they were interrogated, tortured and then shot or deported to the Gulag.

In August 1991, a crowd of demonstrators tried to topple the giant monument. They were celebrating the defeat of the state committee of emergency, a bunch of security services and army chiefs who had detained the last Read the rest of this entry »