1917: The Year That Shook the World

Reflections on the Bolshevik Adventure

After the reverberations of 1905, the Empire of the Czar was listing and ready to fall uno ictu by 1917. As Carlyle observed in The French Revolution, it is singular how long the rotten will last without rougher than usual handling.

When in March a rickety parliamentary democracy was formed and Nicholas II abdicated in favour of brother Michael (length of presumed reign: two days), the most pressing business was not domestic, but foreign, i.e., getting out of the not-so Great War. This order of business left the peasants to stew, the soldiers to simmer and the Bolsheviks to plot.  Like 1905, the Tsar’s army was being humiliated on the battlefield; like 1905, the new parliamentary body would prove something of a sham, but unlike 1905, there was now a real power vacuum.

Prime Minister Kerensky’s own General, Kornilov, began putsching and shoving on his own hook, and after that coup collapsed, the P.M formed his own Committee for Public Safety.  But Thermidor was already casting a shadow. Lenin had concluded the time was right to pluck the fruit of power. His letter to the Bolshevik Committees said: “The present task must be an armed uprising in Petrograd and Moscow (with its region), the seizing of power and the overthrow of the government…History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now.”

After a couple of weeks of insurrection, on 7 November, the Provisional Government, caught between accusations of appeasement and impotence, collapsed. Kerensky fled and the new Soviet Government commenced organising the salvation of the land. (We know how well that turned-out). In Moghilev, General Dukhonin, in charge of the war effort (who had refused to honour a surrender order without verification) was torn to pieces by an angry mob, an act reminiscent of Governor De Launay’s fate at the Bastille.  All power now belonged to the Soviets, and a socialist revolution of the proletariat replaced the bourgeois embryonic democracy.  The civil wars that ensued killed some 15 million people over the next 5 years, from battle and famine. And then of course, things deteriorated.

Revolution per se is a thrill for the young and young at heart.  Without the tedium of laying out a position and taking it to a vote, you can clear-away the deadwood of old and vested interests in one fell swoop. But like A.J.P. Taylor, one tries to be a Marxist but common sense keeps breaking in.  Despite this, we will have an orgy of observance of the Oktoberfest this year, at least in the West (Mr Putin isn’t such a great fan, being more of an old-fashioned Chekist with nostalgia for the Holy Russia of the Tsar – Ivan, not Nicholas…Revolution-Reform-wise, he’s less progressive than Stolypin).  As Orlando Figes wrote in a new introduction to A People’s Tragedy, “The centenary of 1917 is bound to revive interest in the Revolution, not least in Russia, where it remains divisive – for some the foundation of the country (the Soviet Union) with which they identified throughout their lives, for others the beginning of an alien and criminal regime.”

A wise man (P’s father) once said that capitalism and communism were both born, raised and expunged from the human viscera – but capitalism fed on greed, which was tawdry but constructive, whereas communism was from jealousy, which mocked the meat it fed on.

(Thinks: 'This idiot's useful...')

(Thinks: ‘This idiot’s useful…’)

Ten Days That Shook the World (by John Reed) (1926) is a helpful eyewitness account of the machinations during those tumultuous months of October and November 1917, but it is nevertheless ‘boy’s own’ history, muddied by ‘conclusions’ such as this:

“Not by compromise with the propertied classes, or with the other political leaders; not by conciliating the old Government mechanism, did the Bolsheviki conquer the power. Nor by the organized violence of a small clique. If the masses all over Russia had not been ready for insurrection it must have failed. The only reason for Bolshevik success lay in their accomplishing the vast and simple desires of the most profound strata of the people, calling them to the work of tearing down and destroying the old, and afterwards, in the smoke of falling ruins, cooperating with them to erect the framework of the new…”

Which brings us to Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), a mega-production, an old fashioned biopic actually, which looks grand, as big as a basket and twice as empty.                 

'Got a letter here from Miss Bonnie Parker...'

‘Got a letter here from Miss Bonnie Parker…’

The Revolution seems to have been mounted in order to bring wayward lovers and ‘revolutionaries’ John Reed and Louise Bryant back together, as they exchange a touch of typhus, wan platitudes about the proletariat, and the importance of the Judean Peoples’ Front over the revanchist Peoples’ Front of Judea…I may have my nomenclature mixed-up, but you get the drift.  At least he got a book out of it, although the film concentrates more on the counter-revolutionary aftermath.

The real Reed looked a bit like Elmer Fudd with hair; here he gets the glamour treatment, of a sort, Beatty at times suggesting a charming naivety, the charm diminished greatly by his wittering on incoherently for approximately three-and-a-half hours.


‘I don’t get a theme? Lara got a theme. Why don’t I have a theme?’






Reed comes across as Clyde Barrow with a 3rd class degree in political science.  Diane Keaton as Bryant is marginally less simpering than Kay Corleone. The only major characters making sense are the anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton): “Those four million people didn’t die fighting a war. They died from a system that cannot work!” and Eugene O’Neill (a very subtle and insinuating Jack Nicholson): “Louise, something in me tightens when an American intellectual’s eyes shine, and they start to talk to me about The Russian People. Something in me says ‘Watch it – a new version of Irish Catholicism is being offered for your faith.’ And I wonder why a lovely wife like Louise Reed, who has just seen the brave new world, is sitting around with a cynical bastard like me, instead of trotting all over Russia with her idealistic husband…You and Jack have a lot of middle class dreams for two radicals. Jack dreams that he can hustle the American working man (whose one dream is to be rich enough not to have to work) into a revolution led by his party, and you dream that if you discuss the revolution with a man before you go to bed with him, it’ll be missionary work rather than sex.”






Call us pessimists at The Varnished Culture but in our salon, awash with good coffee and the very best vodka (Estonian, of course, followed closely by Polish, not Russian), we sadly tipple and reflect that Marxism won.  The fall of the wall was mere window-dressing…the Bolsheviks won, and rule our lives, like it or not. For example, let us consider the programme according to that first bourgeois Bolshevik, Karl Marx, in The Communist Manifesto (1848):

Expropriation of landed property and use of land rents to defray state expenditure [you only need to consider land tax on investment property, and land tax in the guise of water, power and ’emergency’ levies on residential property, in South Australia and other ‘peoples’ democracies’, to concede that box is ticked];

A vigorously graded income tax [Tick]

Abolition of inheritance rights [Tick]

Confiscation of properties of émigrés and rebels [In workers’ paradises around the globe – Tick; in real democracies, we’re heading in that direction…yes, we’re looking at you Foreign Investment Review Board!]

Centralisation of credit [Ben Chifley lost an election and a High Court case, trying to achieve this.  Now, it is achieved by an oligarchy. The banks still run us but they’re directed by a central bank that sets our rates, our credit terms, and our lives.  In other words, a command economy by another name.]

Centralisation of the means of Transport [Tick: we can’t drive anywhere because there’s nowhere to park, nowhere to accelerate above 40 kilometres per hour, so we must shrug and swallow dodgy timetables, surly service, unsupervised mayhem, inflated prices and regular shut-downs.]

Nationalized means of production [Tick: Vale General Motors Holden! Vale Alinta Energy! Vale ‘public/private partnerships’! Vale any fool that buys into the means of production! Theft for the common weal of course…how those poor dumb masses will profit, Proudhon only knows…]

Agrarian ‘reform’ [Yes, well…we’ll bring town and country together through green armies, won’t we?] [Tick.]

Free Education (indoctrination) of children [Tick…forget STEM, English, history; stay in the safe spaces and get those placards out!]

Let’s add socialised medicine, law, gender, environs, art, militia, policing, media, expression and opinion…and you see that Stalin and his cohorts won




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