The Arc of Utopia in the anniversary year of Russia 1917

Not much enthusiasm has been directed towards the Russian Revolution in this year of its centenary, 2017. At least that’s the case in the British press. Before the fall of Communism in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 of course that wasn’t the case. Successive British post-war governments emulated the command economy. Nor was the competition between the superpowers all a matter of nuclear weapons. Far Left culture guru Raymond Williams in The Long Revolution (1961), a loved book many times reprinted and most recently in 2011, took the ideological minutiae of socialist realism and loyalty to the Party immensely seriously, and his text contained recommendations for the transformation of British society. Penguin Books published whole pocket volumes on Soviet Education (1968), and a translation of the old Bolshevik Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s ABC of Communism (1969).

Into the 1970s the Brits worried the Soviets had ‘a significant and distinctive model of a political and economic system’ that warranted a considerable expansion of Soviet studies in British universities (See: The British Study of Politics in the Twentieth Century, ed. Hayward et al. (Oxford, 2003, p.361) Now all that’s in the past. As a former British ambassador to Moscow wrote in the press a few months ago, anyone who admires that great shift in Russian twentieth-century society is a flat-earther who just can’t accept that our planet is round. But what a strange way to assess a vision for global humanity, to assume that it can be right or wrong like a mathematical calculation! What a complete ditching of the possibilities of imagination!

The Revolution took a severe humanitarian toll. Its casualties endured through generations and are unquantifiable, including all those who died in Russia’s 1919-1921 Civil War, on both sides, and in between; all those who died in labour camps subsequently, or were otherwise victims of the political police, right into the 1980s, when dissidents in all the Moscow-led East Bloc countries were still suffering arrest and the wilful harming of their family lives. To approach that unquantifiable figure you’d need to focus on the terrible show trials in Stalin’s Russia, and in Communist Czechoslovakia after the putsch in 1948. The violence with which the system was imposed was like a series of parallel civil wars, across Russia and in the subjugated East Bloc countries that just went on and on. Would they have been better off, in sheer human terms, without Communism? Or, better, without Russian domination? Surely. Even when the right-wing (Poland) and even fascist regimes (Hungary, Romania) of the interwar years are brought into the equation? Surely.

But it’s equally impossible to deny that Communism expanding West from the Soviet Union also had millions of faithful; believers in a more egalitarian and welfare-based future for expanding mass societies. In Czechoslovakia they elected a Communist government.  And there are enough people, elderly today, in Berlin, in Prague, in Moscow, and innumerable other former Communist cities and towns and villages who remember that dream of equality fondly. It was socially a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’, and unlike the coalition-led bunkum of post-2010 austerity in Britain, working for a better society through modesty and cooperation meant something. Although there was small-scale corruption and meanness everywhere – most Communist citizens felt it their right, their duty even, to steal from the all-owning State – – social cooperation rather than individualistic competition was more than a flat-earth illusion. And echoes of it used to reach us in Britain as late as the 1970s. Not the resentful materialism of our trade unions flexing their industrial muscle is what I remember, but a certain deference to communitarian ideals: a kind of ‘Let the Bus Go First’ principle that was wiped out in the Thatcherite 1980s, when, vis à vis the East Bloc, the West was simply winning the war.

But let me come back to those victims. When I first started visiting Russia in the early 1970s and the Communist bloc from 1980 to its end, in fact the murderous decades were over. Still that regime didn’t want its people to flourish; it denied them educational opportunities if they didn’t tow the political line; they weren’t allowed to travel freely; they lived in poor conditions, with bad diets and primitive medicine, compared with the West. Still that shouldn’t be understood as a critique based on consumerist superiority. It was on my visits to the East Bloc that I realized that for me Communism wasn’t the issue. I didn’t so much care what was or wasn’t in the shops. I minded about lives that were stifled, about talents that were blocked, and in that sense people’s humanity denied. I was a Romantic individualist who had read the Frankfurt School, and particularly Herbert Marcuse, whose spiritual attacks on Western consumerism had helped inspire but also confuse the issues that came to a head in the West with the student protests of 1968 . I wasn’t anti-capitalist, I wasn’t anti-communist. (See my book In the Communist Mirror, 1990) I was in my mid-twenties, sizing up what life could do to thwart peoples’ hopes and dreams. I found those Communist regimes antipathetic and immoral because they destroyed a vision of humanity that was once beautiful.

Lesley Chamberlain In the Communist Mirror (1990)

The sub-title of Arc of Utopia The Beautiful Story of the Russian Revolution is in one sense of course deeply ironic. Civil war is the worst kind of war. Suffering is not beautiful. Murder has no aesthetic appeal. But what I was reaching back to, to tell my story, was the origin of that vision of humanity as I knew it from German eighteenth-century philosophy.  From Kant and the German Enlightenment, die Aufklärung, there was a dream of universal unity and moral decency. Kant envisaged a cosmopolitan world that would uphold the rights of man recently fought for in neighbouring revoltionary France. He imagined every individual would use his newly gained political freedom in tandem with his metaphysical freedom to do the right thing, according to some imagined moral law that was also reflected in works of high art. For Kant the harmony and grace of the work of art classically conceived exuded and exemplified the freely chosen moral order that would inform the future progressive society, in which all individuals would be free to do their duty and become fully themselves, through the realization of their talents. This latter kind of freedom, after that moral law idea inherited from Christianity was observed, was really a matter of indivuals freeing themselves from religious superstition – always one of the most useful tools of political dictatorship – and finding the scope of their lives through the application of reason. Nowadays the tendency is to look back at the Enlightenment and say that reason was just another religion. In which case I would say, judge all ‘religions’ by their human outcome. Do they make people kinder and wiser and more creative and less bellicose? For me Kant had the right recipe by any name. In another time he would of course have written he/she, not just he.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)


The generation of German philosophers after Kant took his ideas and ran with them. The German Romantics were already less measured, less modest and less grounded in social reality than Kant. They (Schelling) reinvested a dark poetic extremism into the vision of Oneness and Harmony. Or, like Hegel, the converse feeling that philosophy could – and eventually would inevitably — entirely elucidate the future good society was so strong that Reason became a potential dictator. That’s why people would one day say that the Russian Revolution, which built on the German heritage of a hundred years earlier, was the West’s idea of Enlightenment taken to a typically Russian extreme. In fact Carl Schmitt said it, that Russia was ‘this extremist brother took the European nineteenth century at its word.’ [1] I agree with him wholeheartedly. (Schmitt of course was another dubious character politically and there’s no getting away from them in the extreme histories of both fascism and communism. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand what was happening in his time. His observation was brilliant.)

How did the German legacy reach Russia? This topic has fascinated me all my life. Between 1790-96 Schelling and Hegel were co-seminarists, studying theology in the German university town of Tübingen, and trying to balance their enthusiasms for theoretical doctrine with what was now the legacy of France from 1789. They planted a tree to honour that moment of freedom, and when I first imagined telling this story I thought of the ‘127 Years of Yearning’ that spanned the period from 1790 in Tübingen to October 1917 in Petrograd. Something of that yearning I’ve fondly read into the facial expression of the soldier on the cover of Arc of Utopia. The idea would be that he has come upon a beautiful work of art, radiating those Kantian properties of freedom and harmony, and what he saw was part of the moment of revolution. It is a kind of fictional story in itself. The soldiers in reality were rough and drunk – when they drank the cellars of the Winter Palace dry Lenin had to impose a statutory ban on the consumption of alcohol – but what I was imagining was a certain journey in the history of ideas coming to fruition.

The in-between stages of the journey meant the ideas were modified, passed on and transformed by Karl Marx (rewriting Hegel) and by such great Russian political activists as the anarchist Bakunin, the religious idealist Dostoevsky and the quasi-Kantian Marxist Plekhanov, among the first in Russia to take the philosophical message to the factory gates. How Lenin harnessed this Romantic revolutionary legacy and reshaped it lies outside the confines of Arc of Utopia.  The arc that took off in 1790 touches the earth again in October 1917.

Nevertheless, I build into that moment the fact that there was not one revolution in Russia but three: 1905, through the duration of the whole year and into the next, February 1917 and October 1917.  The three-in-one revolution was a continuing struggle against the tsarist autocracy that had ruled the country for nearly three hundred years. In that time it had never properly dealt with serfdom, and the blight of its legacy since statutory abolition in 1861. It was a cruel and arbitrary system of government which held the country together through censorship of Western ideas and ‘administrative exile’ to Siberia for any potential troublemakers who might try to organize others to think differently. When the censorship was relaxed in 1906 and the country given a constitution, there was a cultural explosion that was a revolution in its own right, and went on recurring. The poet Mayakovsky dreamt of Fourth and Fifth Internationals of the Spirit, as the political process went bad after 1917. Suddenly, say 1895 – 1929, and with that huge upsurge 1905-1922,  poetry, painting, philosophy, drama and street art came alive in a way Russia had never seen before; and the style was radically modern and post-bourgeois, in a way that would captivate the more settled West for a century to come.

The Arc of Utopia lands in that moment, because what began as an eighteenth-century political vision embodied in the classical work of art now found its twentieth-century  counterpart in works of art that were no longer just symbols of unity and harmony as notions in the mind but actively campaigned for social and political change. The readiness of artists like the painter Kasimir Malevich and that great lyricist Mayakovsky to invent new languages to suit a new social reality were finally Russia’s delayed artistic-philosophical answer to the French Revolution.

Kazimir Malevich Taking in the Harvest (1911)

Kazimir Malevich Suprematism (1915)

I don’t believe that looking back from 2017 we should separate the art from the political ambition of the moment. It’s possible, with Boris Groys[2], to see something inherently totalitarian and indeed Stalinist about the art that broke out of its chains after 1905 and continued until it was forcibly subdued by the state-imposed doctrine of socialist realism (which more or less coincided with Mayakovsky’s suicide and Malevich’s re-turn to figurative painting). In the century after Kant’s death art showed it had many other possibilities beyond perpetuating an ideal of classical moderation.

But what I have chosen to do in Arc of Utopia is cut off the moment in 1917 itself, so that we can just focus on that explosive event, as it happened, 127 years on.  For me it was modern Russia’s greatest moment of self-definition, after the reign of Peter the Great. At last that vast country, and its people, were free to express what they felt about the stifled European heritage and what they felt about themselves, and their answer to it. That answer turned out to be a genuine turn towards the egalitarian and the social, genuinely critical of the West, but a vision which could never be sustained without traditional autocratic control from above. Coupled with the need to industrialize and educate at an accelerated rate, to have Russia catch up with the West and emerge as a modern country in its own right, it led both forward and back, to a Russia which finally accepted the liberty, equality and fraternity of the West in 1789, and now set about reworking that legacy for enduring Russian political conditions. As I say, those conditions seemed to require rigid state control and, just around the corner from Communist internationalism bombastic Russian nationalism. In Russia it would be a message to do with the national spirit that would help make tight political control from above, and an excess of politically directed social organization, popular, because that was a perceived quality of Russianness, as it emerged in post-Petrine experience.

Boris Kustodiev The Bolshevik (1920)

I’ve puzzled over why British commentators have been so half-hearted about Russia 1917 where thirty years ago they would have been at least intellectually respectful. I think the change that has come over the West since the end of the Cold War has been most marked in the way it has branded the Enlightenment legacy negative. The Enlightenment was about humanity conceived in terms of unity, with that unity and humanity somehow contained in the very nature of reason, as our preeminent human faculty. Now under pressure of diversity we disbelieve in one humanity; and we also reject reason, persuaded as we are that it is ‘just another religion. Meanwhile many academics seem to buy the argument, most ironically for me, of the Frankfurt School, that Reason, latterly awarded a capital letter to show how much power it exercised over people’s minds, also in the West, amounted to totalitarianism in itself; so how could we praise Enlightenment’s outcome in a better organized, more humane Russia, any more than we might praise the outcome of its vision of mechanized rationality in Nazi Germany. (This topic for another day…)  I don’t like moments in contemporary intellectual history where everyone seems to switch direction in the same moment. That smacks of a new ideology to me, rather than anything truly understood. There is meanwhile still so much to understand about Russia, for better, for worse, in its rich, radical and terrible experience of 1917.


I’ve also been puzzled by contemporary Russia’s feeling towards its revolutionary heritage, in this ideologically pressurized centenary year. As the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick explains, Vladimir Putin’s regime is caught in an awkward place, because it can’t associate with the 1991 moment that destroyed the Soviet Union, nor does it want to associate with what the Bolshevik revolution became. Putin’s regime has spent nearly twenty years inventing its own nomenclature for a now postmodern Russia which openly and joyfully recognizes its tsarist and Orthodox Christian roots but also evidently owes a debt to Soviet structures of social and political control. Putin is a bombastic nationalist who has dropped the mantle of Communist internationalism; and yet he’s also the leader of a country that owes its rapid modernization and its scientific prestige to the forced decades that fuelled the Soviet powerhouse; meanwhile fraternity for him, never mind liberty, has been to give Russia’s 200,000 million citizens relative social and economic stability, after the turbulence of the 1990s. The Romanovs took the throne of Russia after The Time of Troubles. Russia has a history of liking stability, and continuity, and actually of keeping revolution out.

Finally, there’s something embarrassingly similar in both British and Russian post-Soviet attitudes to October 1917.  They both would prefer not to talk about it, to pretend it didn’t happen, for all that it reveals about their own changes of heart; their own ideological fudges; things that happen in us all at a far subtler level than assessing the evidence for whether the earth is flat or round.

[1] Quoted in Tony Judt, Past Imperfect French Intelletuals 1944-1956 [1992] (New York University Press, 2011), p.165.

[2] Boris Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism [Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin], (Princeton, 1992)

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