The Revolutionary spiked review

October is upon us! Late last month, Tim Black, editor of the estimable spiked review, sent me a number of astonishingly penetrating questions about the 1917 anthology and writers’ responses to the revolution. The interview has just appeared online, in an issue dedicated to all things revolutionary, which also features Susan Weissman’s always stimulating thoughts on Victor Serge.

And I was also happy to see Andrew Stuttaford end his excellent, though decidedly right-of-center, survey of revolutionary books in last weekend’s The Wall Street Journal with two paragraphs about 1917:

Finally, 1917: Stories and Poems From the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 236 pages, $14.95) is an anthology of literary responses to Bunin’s “damn year.” Neatly chosen by Boris Dralyuk, with room for the familiar (such as Boris Pasternak) and those known less well (the sardonic Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, who wrote as Teffi), the volume is reasonably well balanced between the October revolution’s supporters and those appalled by it. Vladimir Mayakovsky catches the millenarian mood (“We’ll cleanse all the cities . . . with a flood even greater than Noah’s”) while in “The Twelve” Alexander Blok opts for a warmer purge: “We’ll . . . set the world on fire . . . give us Your blessing, Lord!”
History made fools of the cheerleaders of revolution, but the words of those who opposed it still haunt. Anna Akhmatova resolves to stay with her “nation, suicidal” and does so, her great chronicling of Stalinist terror still to come. Marina Tsvetaeva writes of the wine flowing down “every gutter” and a “Tsar’s statue—razed, black night in its place.” Zinaida Gippius mourns the death of long longed-for liberty: “The Bride appeared. And then the soldiers / drove bayonets through both her eyes . . . The royal axe and noose were cleaner / than these apes’ bloodied hands . . . Can’t live like this! Can’t live like this!” Both Gippius and Tsvetaeva went into exile. Tsvetaeva later returned to her homeland. She hanged herself in 1941.

4 thoughts on “The Revolutionary spiked review

  1. Thanks for the links – Spiked is definitely worth exploring and particularly happy to see the Serge article. They certainly were some interesting questions and you were very generous in your praise of all those wonderful translators bringing new works to us Anglophones. That’s what I hate about the P/V translation machine (the same books over and over again!) and love about all the other translators! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kaggsy, I really appreciate that! I’m in Minneapolis this weekend, attending the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference, and I’ve just returned from a Russian-to-English translation workshop. There were over 30 people in the room, representing a wide range of ages and levels of experience, sharing diabolically challenging problems and proposing ingenious solutions. It was a joy to behold! The chief organizer this year was Anne O. Fisher, but also present were Alex Cigale, Lisa Hayden Espenschade, J. Kates, Dmitri Manin, Jamie Olson, Marian Schwartz, Russell Scott Valentino, Katherine E. Young, Josephine von Zitzewitz… The list goes on and on — and may it grow in subsequent years!

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  2. How I love Victor Serge, that great man! But I probably won’t read Weissman’s book, because she buys into his blindness about Lenin and Bolshevism, which is the thing I find hardest to understand about this otherwise penetrating thinker and which is unforgivable in the twenty-first century. From the interview:

    And he came to the conclusion that while he sympathised with the Bonnot Gang’s goals, he didn’t approve of their means, and he especially criticised their use of violence.

    Quite right, too. That’s why I’m a pacifist anarchist. But how can you feel that way and succumb to the allure of Bolshevism?

    ‘The authoritarian centralisation of the party contained the seeds of Stalinism as a whole, but revolution and Bolshevism also contained other seeds, notably that of a new democracy which Lenin and others endeavoured to establish with good will and passion in 1917/18.’ …

    If the Cheka was the first big black mark against the revolution, the second was the evisceration of the soviets during the civil war. (Remember that ‘soviet’ is simply the Russian word for council, and the soviets in this case were full-blown councils of communism. For Serge, the sign of a healthy revolution was whether or not you had these authentic organs of democratic control from below.) …

    What impressed Serge, who had been in prison and then a concentration camp when the Bolshevik revolution happened, was that it was organised so democratically. He found, on further investigation, that far from the Bolshevik Party being the sort of centralised, authoritarian body that it became, it involved this constant give and take with the workers. Indeed, it was the workers in the soviets calling the shots, fashioning the party to be the party they needed to move forward.

    This is all utter nonsense, and I find it hard to believe that anyone could read a single thing Lenin wrote and maintain it. If there’s one thing Lenin had contempt for, it was fantasies of “authentic organs of democratic control from below.” The whole point of Bolshevism was complete control from above; it was utterly inevitable that once the Bolsheviks took power they would eviscerate the soviets. And of course it was equally inevitable that, as Trotsky predicted, the organization of the party would take the place of the party itself; the Central Committee would take the place of the organization; and finally the dictator would take the place of the Central Committee. Serge had the excuse for his blindness of living through the turmoil and desperation of those dark days; he may have needed to believe in Santa Lenin against all evidence. Weissman has no such excuse.

    There was this idea that the party was always right, that it was the only game in town.

    Yes, that is the idea of Bolshevism. That’s it’s raison d’etre.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LH, I have little to add! The line about the seed-bag of Bolshevism is one of the finest in Serge’s Memoirs; in my view, it shows him grappling with cognitive dissonance, which he never fully resolves in the book. After all the traumas he had suffered in Europe, here was deliverance in the form of a successful revolution — how could it have gone so terribly wrong? I have less trouble with the Bolsheviks’ incipient bureaucratism than I do with their ready recourse to violence. Serge sided with the Bolsheviks and justified their violence during the Civil War because he felt only violence could repel the forces of counter-revolution. But once the genie of violence is out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in. (The key paragraph in Memoirs begins, “I am well aware that terror has been necessary up till now in all great revolutions…”) As soon as a leftist theorist, however intelligent, begins to justify revolutionary terror, be it Robespierre’s, Lenin’s, or Mao’s, I begin to wonder… Gardening tip: if the seed-bag contains even one seed of Stalinism, the other seeds have no hope.


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