Looking back to the Russian revolution from the 21st century

November 5, 2021

By Simon Pirani. This article first appeared in Jangaran (Awakening), the multilingual humanist journal   

We are now separated from the Russian revolution by more than a century. The Soviet Union, which that revolution brought into existence, collapsed thirty years ago. But the revolution remains an inspiring example of mass popular action that brought about fundamental social and political change.

It is important to retain in our collective memory just how wide and deep that popular movement was.

The revolution began in St Petersburg (then named Petrograd) in the freezing winter of early 1917, two-and-a-half years into the first world war, in which hundreds of thousands of Russians had already died. Women, ground down by long days at factory jobs and ever-longer bread queues, started the revolt.

Women workers demonstrating in 1917. The banner says: “If woman is a slave, there will be no freedom. Long live the equality of women”

Women workers mounted pickets to make their better-paid male counterparts join their protest. Crowds flooded into the centre of St Petersburg to demonstrate. A key turning point was when the police force, unable to hold back the human tide, called in the army. The conscript soldiers – mostly young men from the countryside who didn’t want to fight for the Russian tsar (emperor) – joined the revolt. The three-hundred-year-old empire collapsed overnight.

After this first revolution in February, and the installation of a provisional government of liberal politicians who had opposed tsarism, the movement accelerated, coalescing around the demand for “bread, peace and land”. “Bread” meant solving the food supply crisis; “peace” meant stopping the war now, not later; and “land” meant justice as a hundred million peasants saw it – that land should belong to those who worked it, not to landlords, church or state.

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Social and ecological crisis: it’s about living differently

September 21, 2021

Review by Simon Pirani of The Imperial Mode of Living: everyday life and the ecological crisis of capitalism (Verso, 2021), by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen

Download this book review as a PDF

Imagine, if you will, a British trade union branch that votes to oppose expansion of the local airport. After their meeting, some members head for the pub.

“That was a good decision. It’s not working class people flying in those planes”, says Tom.

“But working class people do fly”, says Richard. “My neighbour is a working class person. He goes to Portugal twice a year with his whole family. And he drives a BMW. We’ll never protect the environment if people like that don’t wake up.”

Harriet chips in. “Your neighbour is an exception. Most working class people will be lucky to get one holiday abroad during the year. And we’ll never win them to the cause of transition away from fossil fuels by asking them to make personal sacrifices. Why should they?”

For crying out loud, comrades. You haven’t even got the beer in yet, and you’re recycling stereotypes. You’re talking about individuals “waking up”, or about whether “we” (who?!) will ask them to sacrifice.  

Earth Day 1970: a student smells a magnolia through a gas mask in New York. Were the 1970s a missed opportunity?

At this point in the conversation – and believe me, I have sat through similar ones – I would be hoping for someone to remind us that it just isn’t that simple, to talk about the social and economic structures that underlie consumption … and to suggest that maybe it’s “our” thinking that needs to shift, towards better understanding these structures and the way they shape workers’ lives in rich countries.

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Defining the “imperial mode of living”

September 21, 2021

This excerpt is reproduced with thanks from The Imperial Mode of Living by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen. Translation by Zachary Murphy King. It goes with a People & Nature review, here.

Defining the concept

The core idea of the concept is that everyday life in the capitalist centres is essentially made possible by shaping social relations and society–nature relations elsewhere, i.e. by means of (in principle) unlimited access to labour power, natural resources and sinks – ecosystems (such as rainforests and oceans in the case of CO2) that absorb more of a particular substance than they emit into their environment – on a global scale.[1]

The capitalist centres fundamentally depend on the the way in which societies elsewhere and their relation to nature are organised so that the transfer of the products of (often cheap) labour and elements of nature from the global South to the economies of the global North is guaranteed. Conversely, the imperial mode of living in the global North structures societies in other places in a decisively hierarchical way. We choose the vague expression “elsewhere” quite consciously. Many necessary everyday items are tied to a range of activities that are invisible during their purchase, consumption and use: the origin of raw materials used in household appliances, medical devices or transport; water and energy infrastructures; the working conditions under which these materials are extracted or textiles and food are produced; and the expenditure of energy required for these. “Cultural products”, such as print or digital media, are also part of this invisible economy.

The invisibility of the social and ecological conditions is precisely what enables us to experience the buying and use of these products as a natural given. “Food from nowhere” is what the agrarian sociologist Philip McMichael has called this strategy of obscuring the origins and production of foodstuffs, in which the spatio–temporal unlimited availability of the latter is normalised.[2] Examples include grapes from Chile offered in northern cafeterias in winter, tomatoes grown and picked by undocumented migrant workers in California for the North American market or by illegalised workers in Andalusia for the Northern European market, and shrimps for the global North that are farmed by destroying Thai or Ecuadorian mangrove forests. But it also includes the disastrous environmental conditions and cheap labour power of Romanian workers in German meat factories that ensure cheap meat in Germany and neighbouring countries.

Picking tomatoes in Mozambique. Photo by Bram Berkelmans / Wikimedia commons

The concept of the “imperial mode of living” points towards the norms of production, distribution and consumption built into the political, economic and cultural structures of everyday life for the populations of the global North.[3] And it works, increasingly, in the countries with “emerging economies” of the global South, as well. However, we mean not only material practices but also, and especially, the structural conditions and guiding social principles and discourses that make these practices possible. To put it pointedly: the standards of a “good” and “proper” life, which often consists of the imperial mode of living, are shaped by everyday life, even when they are a part of comprehensive societal relations, and especially of material and social infrastructures.[4]

In this respect, our concept of a “mode of living” stands in the tradition of Antonio Gramsci and regulation theory, as we assume that a contradictory social form such as capitalism can only reproduce itself if it is embedded in everyday practices and common sense, thereby becoming, so to speak, “natural”. With the adjective “imperial” we want to emphasise – now moving beyond Gramsci – the expanding global and ecological dimensions of this mode of living (again, also within the countries of the global North).

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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 »

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