“Adventure it was”: The Impossible Revolution of 1917

Boris Kustodiev, “The Bolshevik” (1920)

Through the wasteland of war and hunger emerged a simple flash of light. A message of hope from Russia: the Czar of Russia had been overthrown and a new workers’ government was declaring an end to war, poverty and exploitation. Victor Serge glimpsed this light in a French prison camp and was transfixed. In his novel, Birth of our Power, he lets us eavesdrop as radical workers discuss it in a Barcelona warehouse:

“Well, and the Czar?

“No more Czars.”

“… The army?’

“With the people.”

“The police?”

“No more police.”

“The prisons?”

“Burned.”

“The power?”

“Us.”

Many profound things will be written for the centenary of the 1917 revolution in Russia. But few will better capture its electricity. In a world drowning in blood and misery, a revolution had conquered power in the name of Bread, Peace and Land. Czars and generals, factory owners and wealthy landowners had been stripped of their offices, power and privileges. In their places stood the soviets, the councils of elected delegates of workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants.

This was, of course, an “impossible” revolution. Not only for the forces of the Right, but equally for most leaders of the Left, for whom Lenin and his comrades were recklessly leaping over essential phases of history. Regrettably, in the decades after Marx’s death in 1883, many major socialist theorists argued that history inevitably proceeded through a sequence of “stages” according to which centuries of capitalism had to precede any move toward socialism. Because Russia had barely entered into capitalism, any attempt to foment a socialist uprising was said to be irresponsible and premature.

But, seeking to understand why many socialists had in 1914 supported the world war, Lenin had immersed himself in the study of dialectics, which sees all life in terms of dynamic processes overflowing with tensions and contradictions, and which understands that development can proceed as much by leaps as by incremental change. Rejecting dull schemas and ostensible “laws” of history, Lenin wrote that dialectics attends to “the inner pulsation of self-movement and vitality.”

This was an insight full of practical significance. Returning to Russia in April 1917, his thunderous writings and speeches cast away lifeless formulas in favor of the living pulse of revolutionary experience. The insurgent masses of Russia were waging a popular revolt, and the task of genuine socialists, he argued, was to help accelerate their movement toward a rupture with the very order of world imperialism. Left-wing anarchists, peasant revolutionaries and others soon joined hands with Lenin and the Bolsheviks in this project.

That the magnificent gesture of a rupture with empire and exploitation ultimately failed can hardly be the key point for us today. After all, defeat—which was crystallized in the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship in Russia—merely repeats the cycle of failures that will be our history … until it is not. It is the gesture of total rupture—embodied in control of production by factory committees, land to the peasants, decriminalization of same-sex relations, new laws on gender equality, the right of colonized peoples to self-determination, and the pursuit of world revolution—that flashes its simple yet powerful light at the moment of danger we inhabit today.

“Adventure it was,” wrote American radical John Reed about what he had witnessed in Russia in 1917, “and one of the most marvellous mankind ever embarked upon.” To be sure, civil war, famine, foreign invasion, Stalin’s police state and its regime of terror and oppression all destroyed that bold but brief-lived experiment. Yet, tragic failure and decades of anti-revolutionary propaganda by our ruling classes cannot extinguish the marvellously subversive light of that grand adventure. For a few brief years, humanity witnessed a daring attempt to organize social life in a radically new way. Showing us this is part of the brilliance of China Miéville’s wonderful new history of the revolution, October. Miéville writes,

The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.
October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power… A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory.
… It would be absurd, a ridiculous myopia, to hold up October as a simple lens through which to view the struggles of today. But it has been a long century, a long dusk of spite and cruelty … Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all.


Better indeed. And one hundred years later, that light helps to sustain the dream of human liberation.

David McNally is an author, activist and a New Socialist editor. This article develops ideas originally published on the Verso blog earlier this year.

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