The BBC should hang its head in shame. Their documentary (aired 9 October) about the Russian Revolution was appalling.
Anyone wanting to know what happened and why in 1917 will need to go elsewhere, consulting the Oracle at Delphi would be more rewarding. No kind of analysis or narrative of the events of 1917 was offered, nor any attempt to tackle important questions and certainly no attempt to offer a range of views for debate. Instead the viewer was bombarded with a venomous and, at times, monumentally stupid, lambasting of the Bolsheviks, particularly Lenin and Trotsky.
The makers of the documentary couldn’t even be bothered to find genuine archive footage (which is readily available) instead we were mainly shown clips from Sergei Eisenstein’s film of the Revolution, October (made in 1927), accompanied by the music of Dimitri Shostakovitch (How original! Who would have thought of that?).
Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were played by three actors who bore about as much resemblance to them as Norman Wisdom, Frankie Howard and Benny Hill. The only other person played by an actor was Kerensky who made couple of short appearances talking to camera (oh very avant-garde!). As for the rest of the “dramatis personae” only General Kornilov and the Tsar are mentioned by name.
Alas, if this farrago of ham-fisted production values and clichéd dialogue wasn’t bad enough, the poor viewer had to, additionally, suffer the likes of Martin Amis, Victor Sebestyen, Helen Rappaport, Orlando Figes Simon Sebag-Montefiore and other self-opinionated right-wing windbags whose only contribution was to tell us endless anecdotes about how nasty/scheming/two-faced Lenin was and how ambitious/vain/arrogant Trotsky was. I actually felt sorry for the actors – to be fair to them it would have taken the skills of Laurence Olivier to rescue anything from this stilted, cheapskate mash-up. Go to your local amateur dramatics society and watch their Christmas production of Pirates of Penzance and you’ll get more entertainment and intellectual stimulation.
Tariq Ali and China Mieville tried to offer a counter perspective but, in effect, they only had “walk on” parts presumably to offer at least a fig-leaf of “balance”. All the usual tripe was turned out, for example: the revolution was a coup d’etat. No arguments were put for that conclusion, other than that Amis, Montefiore and the rest said so. We were constantly told, gleefully, that the Bolsheviks had no support and crowds only turned up at the Finland Station to greet Lenin because they had been offered free beer! This at least was a new fairy tale to add to all the others. No-one seemed prepared to tackle an obvious question: if the Bolsheviks were “Johnny-no-mates” how come they mobilised many thousands for the revolution, closing down Petrograd when the crucial time came and how come they defended the city, successfully, against Kornilov?
Funnily enough, despite the fact that the Bolsheviks were friendless and entirely without support or allies, why did the programme makers talk only about them? In the whole programme there was no mention of the Social Revolutionaries (Left or Right), the Mensheviks, Anarchists and Kadets. Nor did the Kronstadt sailors feature despite their leading role in the events of October and heaven forbid that women should be mentioned despite their key role, particularly in the February Revolution.
Finally, I would mention three other major flaws connected with this documentary: first, that the production team ever bothered to make it; second, that the BBC decided to broadcast it and third, that I wasted an hour of time watching this rubbish when I could have been in the pub.
Learning and working
I agree with Paul Vernadsky’s reply (Solidarity 450) to Colin Waugh (449). Colin quotes Marx from 1845: “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice”.
He interprets this as saying “that most insights into how [the world] functions must be arrived at by workers” and “through work, especially work with a large physical component”. Non-manual-workers can produce new understanding only by dialogue with those manual workers. Yet Marx’s picture was of “the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man”.
Workers, Marx wrote, would under capitalism gain chances to enlarge their understanding not from their routine physical work processes, but from the pressure on capitalists to develop “fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of [their] varied aptitudes” — often by formal training and education.
One of the great advantages of the modern wage-workers over previous labouring classes is our variation of jobs, and our capacity to win more free time and culture outside work. Did Marx paint too unfavourable a picture of manual labour in the capitalist workplace? Some craft workers develop inventions. But what about the typical machine-minding worker? And the workers who transport products, or repair and maintain them — dockers, electricians, cleaners? Or office workers? Can they learn only by being instructed by manual craft-workers?
Marx’s 1845 statement means not that only the individual physically making widgets or waffles can develop new understanding of the world, but that the collective human process of developing new understanding is linked with the collective human process of transforming the physical and social world. Workers’ greater social understanding is gained mainly through collective social struggle (and associated discussions) rather than from their labour for the capitalist. To take a field I know a little about: the development of the mathematics of complex analysis between the mid-18th and the mid-19th century was linked with the development of Newtonian physical sciences and in turn of industrial technology.
But none of the key contributors were manual workers. Nor did they fit into the other category of thinkers envisaged by Colin: “intellectuals produced by the ruling class in the interests of its continued dominance”. All were of modest social origin (Gauss son of a bricklayer, Euler and Riemann of poor priests, Cauchy and Weierstrass of government officials, Dedekind of a university official...) None had much interest in technology. The links between their work and technology were indirect and complicated.
The great Karl Weierstrass when young was a school teacher, covering many subjects, including gymnastics, as well as maths. Far from the physical labour of gym lessons stimulating Weierstrass’s research, he saw that time as one of “unending dreariness and boredom” when he “had neither a colleague for mathematical discussions nor access to a mathematical library”. Social understanding, too, develops through a complicated collective process, not by the individual gaining revelation from her or his physical labour. What workers — and all of us — need most to raise our understanding is what Weierstrass needed: “colleagues for discussion” and “access to a library”. Those come “from outside” the immediate labour process, and through the work of a revolutionary socialist party with a strong tradition.
No proper Brexit debate
Alex Nunns’ report of Labour Party Conference for Red Pepper is one of the better pieces written about the debate and atmosphere in Brighton this year. Nonetheless it is another example of attempts to portray the lack of discussion of Brexit as either tactically clever or a minority interest only shared by the Labour right. Neither claim bears up to scrutiny. His contention that the AWL and others are just moaning about Momentum organising delegates is misleading in the extreme.
While true that Brexit was not prioritised because Momentum was able to convince people to vote for different topics, there was no debate as to why Brexit should not be prioritised, or any other areas for that matter. Well over 250 people were at the eve of conference CLPD rally, where delegates were told what to prioritise. There was no debate as to who had made the decision but it would be foolish to believe that the Labour leadership did not also intervene with the Momentum and CLPD leadership to avoid discussion of a potentially divisive issue. Nunns refers to it as a “pragmatic desire to avoid a split”.
What would a split have meant? A chance to discuss the most important implication of a Tory Brexit, the restriction on freedom of movement!
The spectre of Progress and Labour First arguing for Labour to back the single market is given as a reason to distrust agitation that the Labour Party should discuss its response to Brexit at its own conference! Nunns concedes, as we have argued, that a firm commitment to maintaining freedom of movement arrangements may have won significant support but would not have been the focus of the Brexit motion.
The Labour Campaign for the Single Market did have more text submitted than the Labour Campaign for Free Movement but we cannot predict the compositing process nor what would have motivated a majority left-wing conference to choose to frame the debate. Conference did vote on Brexit but this was to endorse the NEC statement which, much like Keir Starmer’s speech, contained very little substance. In conclusion he believes that the defeat of the reference back on staying in the Customs Union and European Economic Area are proof that had a motion been prioritised it would have fallen.
Of course this was a possibility, but stopping a debate should be seen as a failure of the left leadership, not a success.
Jamie Sims argues (Solidarity 450) that I made a false equivalence between Spanish and Catalan nationalism, written out the pro-independence left and given insufficient weight to Catalan civil disobedience.
Some of what he writes — how the Spanish government has interfered with Catalan self-government; how hostility to the rotten old post-Francoist order fed independence — I don’t disagree with. However in saying “whatever its flaws”, the referendum “represented a massive act of collective disobedience by millions of Catalans”, I don’t think he answers my point.
As far as anyone can tell, there is not a majority for independence, however impressively dedicated and courageous those in favour may be. I continue to think that would present a democratic problem for a new state. Regarding the pro-independence left: true, I was mainly talking about the Catalan government. Sims argues the pro-independence left, and in particular the CUP, has “maintained its autonomy from the pro-independence coalition government”. But the “Together for Yes” coalition is precisely an alliance of right-wing and left-wing nationalists, and relies for its survival on a confidence and supply arrangement with... the CUP!
This is one of the reasons we need to be wary of nationalism — its tendency to pull the left into lending cross-class support to bourgeois governments, in the cause of “national” aims.