Making an Art of Revolution


Mark Perryman invites us to wear our dancing shoes to celebrate the October 1917 centenary

To sort of coin a phrase ‘ How do you solve a problem like VI Lenin?’ As the centenary of the October revolution fast approaches the flawed accolades provided by the likes of the Royal Academy, British Library and Design Museum exhibitions will be cleared away and the politics take centre-stage. We’ve already had an inkling of what to expect with the aftermath from Charlottesville sparking the moral equivalence brigade spouting their your communism was just as bad as their Nazism yah-boo sucks effort at intellectual debate.

Much of this is easy enough to disagree with but if in doing so we tie ourselves up in left-wing hagiography then I’m not sure how far we advance our cause either. Lenin remains, of course, the most superb tactician of revolutionary change, and deserves every credit for that, and more too, as a leader of an insurrectionary mass movement who in the process laid the basis for an entirely new society. There are precious few political figures from the twentieth century, what the historian Eric Hobsbawm dubbed as the ‘age of extremes’ who can match Lenin’s achievements. Except for the most embittered of anti-communists none of that should be controversial. The difficulties occur on our side when the tactics, leadership, and new society of Lenin are wrenched out of all context, or as theorists prefer, out of the ‘conjuncture’, to propose a politics of mimicry rather than adaptation to the conditions we face.  This is hardly a new debate either, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci first raised this precise issue in the 1920s when he made the distinction between the revolution as a war of manoeuvre versus the war of position.  

So a century on, how to celebrate 1917?  It would be nice to get it right, after all precious few of us are going to be around for the bicentenary! The imperative of revolutionary change, notwithstanding this conjuncture or that, remains unchanged, and thus makes the best starting point. A notion summed up best by the title John Reed’s epic account of October 1917, Ten Days that Shook the World.  An ideal so good that neither Hollywood nor Warren Beatty were able to destroy the message and instead produced a rather decent film version, Reds.

1917 served to inspire across the entire spectrum of the arts. Music, poetry, architecture, design, theatre, fashion, literature, film, has there ever been such a moment where art was shaped out of revolution of such a range and on such a scale?  A revolutionary imperative that not only inspired, but recognised that to flourish these artists, writers, designers, poets would need the space to express this imperative in their own terms, not as servants of the revolution but in its service.

This first made sense to me in the mid 1980s, when the Crafts Council hosted a London exhibition ‘ Art into Production: Soviet Textiles, Fashion and Ceramics, 1917-1935’. The vivid colours, the variety of shapes, the ever-presence of a sense of movement with a purpose caught my eye and I’ve never forgotten it. Shortly after and the era of Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika meant a much wider re-assessment of Soviet power on the world stage, the beginning of the end of what had threatened to become a new cold war.  And this was reflected too in a popular appropriation of ‘Bolshevik chic’.  Harmless enough in intent, broadly well-meaning but pretty much devoid of political content, there goes that  conjuncture again.

And so where do we end up for October 2017? In post-Soviet Russia Putin will seek no doubt to represent 1917 as indicative of the might of his Greater Russia nationalism, this was the era of the USSR after all, a nation on a scale that Putin today can only dream of.  Meanwhile across what used to be thought of as the West parties of social democracy are suffering a phenomenon the writer and activist James Doran has described as Pasokification.  A steep decline in support following these parties’ embrace of the neoliberal consensus, in Greece PASOK has suffered the steepest fall of all but elsewhere in France, Spain, the Netherlands, the Irish Republic social-democratic parties have not only declined but faced an insurgent challenge from their Left too.  None of this amounts to 1917 revisited but chimes nonetheless with the inspirational motives of radical change.

In Britain the picture is different.  Because the insurgency has come from within the party of social democracy itself, the rank outsider, the serial rebel, Jeremy Corbyn. Labour of course is not about to become a revolutionary party, it has never been one and will never turn into one.  But the sense that a party set on winning parliamentary power can co-exist with the ambition of reinventing itself as a social movement is increasingly prevalent as the defining characteristic of Corbynism.  

Finding a way to mix all this together for a 1917 centenary night out is no mean feat. But Philosophy Football, with the help of the RMT, are doing that at London’s Rich Mix Arts Centre on Saturday 21st October.  Described by Time Out as ‘The Sex Pistols of Balkan Brass’ The Trans-Siberian March band headline with a special Shostakovitch inspired set. Michael Rosen reviews how 1917 produced a wave of childrens books at the time. Rosy Carrick performs extracts and interpretations of the brand new translation of Mayakovsky’s epic poem Lenin she has recently edited.  And the surprise hit of the Edinburgh fringe Des Kapital, recalls the events of the Russian Revolution via the songs of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Robbie Williams, a history lesson like none other complete with audience singalongs!  Add author of Landscapes of Communism, Owen Hatherley and Eldina Begic creator of the Comradettes clothing project with Richard Seymour author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics on the spirit of revolution and be prepared to expect the unexpected.

There will be others who will debate the ins and outs of 1917 and all that what was to be done. That is right and proper, but the road to revolution needs its dancing shoes as well as marching boots. 1917? Ain’t nothing but a party.


Art out of Revolution is at Rich Mix, East London Saturday 21st October. Tickets from here