The Russian Revolution Was Not the Material for Your Modern Day Morality Play

Given that this is the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution, I am not at all surprised that the internet, including mainstream outlets like the Washington Post, is full of reflections on those events. Many of them are thoughtful and offer considered evaluations of the revolution and its legacies.

This one is not one of them.

I am not here to say that Anne Applebaum’s piece is completely wrong. Nor am I going to catalog every way in which it is poorly argued or misleading.

I do, however, want to highlight two of its many striking flaws.

First, it interprets the causes of the October Revolution using ideas stuck in the Cold War–era rhetoric on which anticommunist crusaders founded their assertion that the Soviet Union was illegitimate from its founding and, therefore, should not have had any right to exist. In 2017, Applebaum can tell this story this way only by ignoring decades of thoroughly researched scholarship that debunked that once accepted view. Since the 1960s, historians of many different political stripes—often of the left and often nonetheless critical of the Soviet Union—have painstakingly documented the ways in which the Bolshevik program of 1917 drew considerable popular support among an increasingly desperate populace. Yes, the slogan “Peace, Land, Bread” was simple—and easier shouted from a platform than realized—but it resonated with millions who had suffered under the oppression of exploitative industrialization, oppressive social relations, autocratic rule, and the carnage of the Great War.

What’s more, historians have established beyond a shadow of a doubt that alternatives offered by liberals and then by the nominally moderate socialist Kerensky were completely discredited by their support for continuing the war effort. Already by August 1917, Kerensky could not muster the support to turn away an actual right-wing coup attempt, forcing him to turn to the workers. The Bolshevik seizure of power can hardly be seen as a coup d’etat because, by October 1917, there was not much in the way of an etat to coup.

But this can all be left safely in the realm of the past.

What’s even more infuriating is the pointless centrist pablum offered up by way of lessons about our awful, depressing present. (Did I mention dystopian?) In a way, Applebaum simply uses the comparison with Bolsheviks to signal something she doesn’t like. While this is intellectually lazy, sometimes the objects of it are not really the problem: Orban is bad. Le Pen leads a movement of mouth-breathers, closed-doors anti–Semites, and anti–Muslim bigots. One can find ominous signs in the language of right-wing nasties from Poland to Pennsylvania Ave.

What is simply stupid is Applebaum’s characterization of the left. In fact, it’s not merely stupid. It’s a roadmap to political annihilation for the very values liberals purport to defend. The short version is that anyone to Applebaum’s left is a commie, was a commie, or wants to be a commie.

She trots out the usual, baseless slurs against Jeremy Corbyn. You know, the ones the abysmal right-wing British press used in the last general election campaign to such successful effect. Pro–IRA, pro–this, anti–that.

Then we get to the left over here:

In the United States, the Marxist left has also consolidated on the fringes of the Democratic Party — and sometimes not even on the fringes — as well as on campuses, where it polices the speech of its members, fights to prevent students from hearing opposing viewpoints, and teaches a dark, negative version of American history, one calculated to create doubts about democracy and to cast shadows on all political debate. The followers of this new alt-left spurn basic patriotism and support America’s opponents, whether in Russia or the Middle East. As in Britain, they don’t remember the antecedents of their ideas and they don’t make a connection between their language and the words used by fanatics of a different era.

There are no names here. What parts of the Democratic Party? Where are these influential Marxists who have a consolidated position anywhere? (No, seriously, where can I meet them?) Is this a veiled reference to Bernie? We might, then, be back to the bad old days when, in America, moderate social democrats were routinely red baited. Or maybe Applebaum knows something about what happens behind the scenes of the Democratic Party that we don’t.

This is simply fact free drivel. It’s based on the idea that because there is a radical right we now like to call “alt–,” then there must be a left equivalent. I’m surprised she didn’t name check Chapo Trap House. Maybe she didn’t think her readers would get the reference, which kind of proves the point.

So on the one hand we have right-wing nasties populating the upper echelons of the executive branch, the state governments, etc. (Not to mention self-confessed Nazis and Nazi–adjacent groups marching and attacking in Charlottesville, Gainesville, and elsewhere).

On the other, we have some unnamed, unknown “influential Marxists.”

Because in the neoliberal centrist bubble that our pitifully ill-informed, talentless elites live in, the one dictum that must always be honored is that both sides do it. And the real answer must lie somewhere between the reasonable demands of the left and the outright lunacy of the radical right.

And this—yeah, I know, we began with the Russian Revolution—is why I fear for any prospect of our political elites gathering their shit in time to challenge to the right in the political and electoral fields. The momentum and energy is over here, on the left. You’ll get nowhere labeling as “neo–Bolsheviks” those demanding a left populist response to the utter darkness that is the future envisioned by the right-wing.

3 thoughts on “The Russian Revolution Was Not the Material for Your Modern Day Morality Play

    1. Thanks, on both fronts! (And fixed the “y”.) I wrote this more quickly than I often do, meaning that a good turn of phrase or two came out, fueled by my frustration, but also that I didn’t proof it quite as carefully as I might have.


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