The journey into the heart of redness

The optimism often associated with liberalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union is now also lost (John McCann/M&G)

The optimism often associated with liberalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union is now also lost (John McCann/M&G)

On January 3 1905 workers at the Putilov Ironworks in St Petersburg struck in response to the dismissal of four workers. Their demands quickly escalated to include an eight-hour day, a minimum wage and the formation of an elected workers’ council. In less than a week, the strike spread to factories across the city.

By January 21, St Petersburg was in effect shut down.

The following day unarmed workers were massacred as they marched on the Winter Palace to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II.

Strikes quickly spread through the Russian Empire. When universities were closed down in March, radical students joined the ferment. In St Petersburg a council, known as a Soviet, was elected to represent workers across different unions and factories. By the end of the year it had been repressed by the state, and its leaders arrested.

In 1914, when Russia found itself at war with Germany, St Petersburg was renamed Petrograd. The slaughter across Europe did not enable nationalism to suppress social questions fully.

On February 14 1917, workers at the Putilov Ironworks embarked on another strike.

Five days later tens of thousands of women, led by striking textile workers, took to the streets on International Women’s Day, to protest food shortages. Strikes and riots escalated rapidly and soldiers began to mutiny. On February 27 the Petrograd Soviet was established.

That evening revolutionary crowds released prisoners and destroyed the offices of the secret police, as well as police stations across the city. Soviets were rapidly constituted, from below, around the country.

On April 3 Vladimir Lenin arrived in Petrograd, from his exile in Zurich. The following day his April Theses were first presented in speeches at two meetings. Lenin made reference to the Paris Commune of 1871.

The commune — which ended in massacre after 72 days — took the form of the seizure of political power by a form of revolutionary popular democracy, in which delegates were elected to a council and subject to immediate recall.

Lenin proposed a “commune state” and affirmed a revolutionary programme under Soviet authority. He called for the “abolition of the police, the army, and the bureaucracy” and for “the salaries of all officials, all of whom are elective and displaceable at any time, not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker”.

Lenin asserted that full commitment to popular democratic power would enable “the people” to “overcome their mistakes by experience”.

On October 23 1917, a revolutionary military committee — made up of armed workers, soldiers and sailors — was formed in the Petrograd Soviet under the authority of its leader, Leon Trotsky. The following night bridges and telegraph offices were seized. On the morning of October 25 Lenin announced the transfer of power to the Petrograd Soviet. The world shook.

The red flag adopted by the Soviet Union, like those of China and Vietnam, reached back to the Paris Commune — famously described by Karl Marx as “the political form at last discovered” for emancipation.

The commune had derived the red flag from the Jacobins who had raised it in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789.

From early on, the red of the Jacobins had escaped the boundaries of the nation. When British sailors mutinied in 1797 they raised red flags on their ships. In the 1831 Merthyr Rising in Wales, coal miners raised two flags, soaked in the blood of a calf. The red flag was raised in the failed revolutions in various parts of Europe in 1848, and again at a May Day rally for an eight-hour workday in Chicago in 1886.

Communism, as a word, entered the historical record in 1840, and received its most influential expression in the manifesto written by Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. Communists had often first been radicalised by the expropriation of the commons.

There had been a long history in Europe, before the French Revolution, of struggle for the commons — shared access to, and management of, the fields, waters and forests.

In the peasant wars — which raged across German-speaking Europe in the 16th century — the struggle to elect and depose clergy, end serfdom and restore access to the commons, was represented by a villager’s shoe hoisted on to a pole.

When Thomas Müntzer, a radical cleric, founded a militia to support the peasants against the princes, its soldiers marched under a rainbow flag, a sign of God’s covenant after the flood.

But from the 13th-century English stories of Robin Hood — robbing the rich to give to the poor — to the 17th century struggle of the Levellers, the colour of the struggles for the commons was most often green.

These struggles were often associated with the insurgent assertion of popular democracy. In 1647 the soldiers of the New Model Army, many of whom were Levellers, refused to disband when ordered to do so by Parliament, and resolved to elect their own leaders directly — known as agitators — from within their ranks.

But by the 1840s there was, Peter Linebaugh writes, a sense that, whereas the commons “belong to the past”, communism “was the new name to express the revolutionary aspirations of proletarians. It pointed to the future.” It would, appropriately, find its fullest red — a red that emerged from a by-product of industrialisation — in the future.

Cadmium, first discovered in a laboratory in Germany in 1817, is a soft metal, usually described as “bluish-white” or “silvery” in colour. It cannot be mined on its own because it doesn’t exist in concentrated form. It emerges when zinc, copper and lead are mined, smelted and refined. It is poisonous. It is used for nuclear fission, batteries and for paint — brilliant yellow, orange and red.

Cadmium red is bright, bold and strong — the colour of arterial blood, — the deepest, purest red on the artist’s palette. It first became available in 1910.

Henri Matisse — who, John Berger wrote, “clashed his colours together like cymbals” — embraced it immediately, and with spectacular effect, in The Red Studio. Vincent van Gogh’s reds, made with lead pigment, have faded. But cadmium red is a permanent red. Matisse’s painting, now in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is as striking as the day it was finished in 1911. From Pablo Picasso to Paul Cézanne — who declared that “colour is the place where our brain and the universe meet” — cadmium red has marked a set of attempts to inscribe boldness and vitality into the modern. It was used in many Soviet political posters.

By the second half of 1921, Lenin was seriously ill. He suffered strokes in May and December 1922, and again in March 1923.

His last document was written on March 2 that year. He described the state apparatus as “deplorable” and warned that “the most harmful thing would be haste. The most harmful thing would be to rely on the assumption that we know at least something, or that we have any considerable number of elements necessary for the building of a really new state apparatus, one really worthy to be called socialist.”

Lenin suggested three remedies: “First, to learn, secondly, to learn, and thirdly, to learn, and then see to it that learning shall not remain a dead letter, or a fashionable catchphrase … that learning shall really become part of our very being, that it shall actually and fully become a constituent element of our social life.”

When Lenin died on January  21 1924, his body was wrapped in a faded red flag from the Paris Commune.

But the authority of the party and the state was already expropriating the popular democratic power that had made the revolution. Lenin’s name was increasingly used to assert dogma against free inquiry. The state that embalmed his body would become rapidly more deplorable as time wore on. Little cults, frequently putrid, would place Lenin at the centre of a sublimated religiosity, often radically alienated from what Marx had called “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”.

Today the images in Soviet posters — with their industrial and statist visions of a great future — often appear as relics of an optimism that seems, much like old science fiction films, hopelessly archaic.

But the optimism often associated with liberalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union is now also lost. In much of the world, forms of authoritarian populism, generally organised around chauvinism of various kinds, have seized the political initiative. It has become clear that if liberalism is not effectively challenged from the left it will give way to the right.

The emancipatory desires that seem contemporary often take the form of the politics of open assembly and the insurgent constitution of new democratic authority. There is a thread here — green before red — that ties this moment to the struggles of the past.

As we confront the centenary of the Russian Revolution we would do well to take its origin in the constitution of popular democratic power seriously — and to give careful thought to how that came to be supplanted by the party and the state. 

Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research

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