Our fourth issue, “Echoes of 1917” is – finally, at long last – off to the printers. All those expecting a copy (be they orders or as part of a subscription) should have them in their hands in the coming weeks. Below is the lead editorial. If you are interested in a copy of issue four, our examination of the Russian Revolution’s artistic and aesthetic legacies, then order a copy today.
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At 9:40pm on October 25th, the forecastle gun of the battleship Aurora fired an ear-shattering round into the air. It was a blank, an empty shell. One-year prior, the Aurora had been contributing to the carnage of World War I, patrolling and bombarding in service to the Russian Empire. Now it was docked in Petrograd and under the control of a revolutionary sailors’ committee, most of whom supported the Bolsheviks. The blank round was, so the story goes, the first shot in the October Revolution, which overthrew the Provisional Government and established the first workers’ state in history.
There is a certain amount of romance in the story of the Aurora firing the first shot. A ship that had once been used to dominate and kill for the sake of empire now under democratic control. Its crew animated by the vision not of imperial greatness but of a world where they and their families could get the bread, peace, and respect they deserved. Its gun not firing to destroy and devastate but to call to action, to bring humans together, its destructive power hollowed out and its sound bouncing and resonating through the city's street. Not just the destruction of the old world, but the opening up of a new one.
This image is an exaggeration. In fact, the shot from the Aurora was more a signal to workers, soldiers, and sailors to be at the ready. It wasn't until two hours later – almost midnight – that the forces were rallied to rush the Winter Palace, displacing and arresting the already scattered government.
The symbolism is striking though. And it contributed to many of the myths – both good and bad – that were spun in the years following the revolution. As working people began to construct new narratives and methods of explaining the world, they reassessed their relationship to history and the future, to the horizon of possibility. To be utopian was to be practical. The times demanded it. The art, film, dance, music, drama, poetry, literature, performance and human creativity that flourished during these early years of the revolution would across the board redefine the parameters of their medium. Mayakovsky, Rodchenko, Eisenstein, Popova, Shostakovich, Meyerhold. Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Proletkult, Graphical Music, Biomechanics. All of them, if not a successful challenge to the conventions of artistic expression, were touchstones in new ways of thinking about those conventions along with those of society as a whole.
It was the groundbreaking Sergei Eisenstein film October, released in 1928, that cemented the myth of the Aurora. It was an understandable, even beautiful one, the seeming spontaneity of the moment reflecting a liberation of mass impulse, a call for the urges and desires of ordinary people to guide history itself.
Even here, however, one can see the other side of the myth. There is a rigidity being imposed from without, and you can see it if you know where to look. (Joe Sabatini's dissection of Boris Groys, featured in this issue, touches on some of these hints.) Eisenstein's filmmaking at its best is a conduit for mass struggle, a collision of the multitude of events and happenstances that collide to make up a collective protagonist. This is present in October, unmistakably so. But so is the flattening of the revolution into a single linear version of events that were as good as ordained from the outset.
Fifty years after the revolution, the Soviet government introduced the Order of the October Revolution. It was an award given to those whose contributions furthered the military or civic defense of the Soviet Union. Its medal featured an image of the Aurora. In fact, the Aurora itself was conferred the honor. This was the symbology of a revolution betrayed, atrophied and hollowed of its vibrant dynamism. Stalin had won and died. His inheritors had little interest in reintroducing the radical democracy of 1917, even had they been able (as insurgent workers in East Germany, Hungary, and later Czechoslovakia and Poland would testify). The Aurora's significance was redefined, along with the revolution itself, along national lines. The ship’s opening shot was frozen in time and reduced to a mechanical order rather than a call to a future waiting to be collectively rewritten.
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Echoes. Symbols. Myths. Their meanings may change over time and can be shaped and warped by the needs of whomever is holding the reins of history. The rewriting of the Russian Revolution’s true meaning and significance has indeed been a reflection of class struggle's ups and downs.
A little more than a generation ago, it was nearly impossible to speak the word socialism without being laughed at, without the very notion being dismissed as “dead” and “failed.” Now, twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – and a full century since Lenin first announced “we shall now proceed to construct the socialist order,” – with the havoc of neoliberal capitalism on such obvious display, the perception of socialism has again shifted. It is one part of a broader shift in history, in the possible futures on offer. Alongside the increasing climate disasters as icecaps melt, as countries’ highest offices fall to right-wing populism, as states turn to greater and greater repression in order to quell the unrest of economic turmoil, the socialist vision finds its way back onto young working people's horizons.
All of these are of course interrelated. Capitalism cannot keep its crises at bay for very long at all, and over time they only get deeper and deeper. The workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors who made the Russian Revolution a reality knew this or came to recognize it. Over the course of the struggle, the irreconcilability of their hopes and aspirations with the apocalyptic ruins of World War I inevitably became more and more apparent. One or the other had to win out. And for a brief moment, it was the former.
It should be no surprise that Red Wedge thinks of the Russian Revolution in positive terms. We are communists. Unabashedly so. We are heterodox and dissident and have no truck with the illusions of Stalinism or those of socialism as being won from any direction other than from the bottom-up. But these make us more genuine in our communism. Not less.
We are communists for the same reason we are preoccupied with the questions of art and aesthetics: because we believe that the imaginations of ordinary people are essential in charting genuine liberation. It would be easy for those thrilled by the mass experimental art movements of 1917 to just focus on them. Understandably so. But that is not what we wish to accomplish here. Rather, we wish to look at how these experiments – driven as they were by socialism as a newfound reality – have resonated and resonate today for artists, activists and cultural workers preoccupied with radical social change.
This issue is dedicated to using the defiance of time-and-space of which only art is truly capable of rearranging the meaning of what took place during those days of 1917. We hope to reveal a timeline of resistance, dissidence, and radical reinvention, in which the quotidian and the grand historical become interwoven.
It in this vein that Alexander Billet and Adam Turl review Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia and how the erasure of the utopian imagination has stymied contemporary culture. From the interregnum we publish original translations of dissident Soviet writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poetry (with analysis from Jason Netek) and a long lost speech from Richard Wright, delivered to antiwar students at the beginning of the Cold War (with an introduction by Scott McLemee). Jordy Cummings writes on the mini-revival of Soviet disco. Earl Theodore reviews Owen Hatherley’s The Chaplin Machine. Joe Sabatini examines Russian philosopher Boris Groys’ theories on art and Stalinism – and how the dissident thinker of underground Moscow art adopted his own sort of nihilism. We also publish Part 2 of Neil Davidson’s interrogation of Leon Trotsky, Clement Greenberg and György Lukács on Marxism and modernism; the sonnets of Margaret Corvid; and the art of David Mabb, Jon Cornell and Richard Reilly.
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Near the beginning of Eisenstein's October, there is another sequence in which the people of Petrograd climb up the pedestal for a grand statue of Tsar Nicholas II. They tie ropes around the statue and bring it tumbling to the ground. The Russian Revolution was not the first time that statues were torn down in the name of undoing an old order. Nor would it be the last.
One hundred years later we are discussing the place of monuments dedicated to Confederate generals, slave owners, architects of colonial genocide. They belong in the dustbin. So too does any system that uses these kinds of personalities as its ideological pillars. More statues and monuments will be coming down. Whose will they be?
This editorial appears in our fourth issue, “Echoes of 1917.” Order a copy at wedge shop.
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