Click to enlarge the cartoon. Drawing by Niyaz Karim
For much of the twentieth century Russians celebrated the October 1917 Revolution – the event which brought Lenin and his party to power. (Although the revolution began on October 25, the November 7 date relates to an historical quirk – the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar instigated by the Bolsheviks after they gained power.) Russia no longer officially celebrates the revolution, with Russian President Vladimir Putin reinstating a holiday which had ceased being celebrated in 1917 – National Unity Day.. But that celebrations of the revolution are no longer officially sanctioned does not, of course, mean that they don’t occur.
One of the signal features of the official histories propagated following the October Revolution was that they produced two symmetrical distortions: one concerning the dramatic violence of the Revolution and the other concerning the peace that followed it. As we now know, the revolution itself was nowhere near as dramatic as later historical and theatrical reconstructions of it suggested. Indeed, much of the violence surrounding the so-called “storming of the Winter Palace” resulted from generalised confusion, lootings (especially of liquor stores), and the predictable results of combining alcohol, male bravado, and loaded weapons. But neither, as historians continue to count and recount the tens of millions of bodies that fell in the decades that followed, was the Soviet Union the kind of paradise that its PR managers invariably pretended that it was.
But as both the banality of the revolution and the brutality of its aftermath fade from collective memory, our capacity to romanticise both becomes ever more pronounced. And this is not simply a Russian tendency. Trendy inner-city cafés throughout the west have become billboards for all species of revolutionary iconography. The kaleidoscope of images on offer – a red star shoulder bag, a dashing Che Guevara t-shirt, a peaked cap with the hammer and sickle – suggest a meeting of local members of a now-realised Fifth International. As it turns out, of course, it is no such thing. These are bankers, software developers, and university students checking Facebook, flipping through newspapers, and “networking.”
However one judges this odd revolutionary parade, it is in itself not terribly remarkable – simply one facet of a more general tendency in contemporary culture. Revolutionary iconography has become, like many of the cultural trinkets of the past, mere parades of signs that people use to make profits and construct their identities. Che Guevara was, of course, an Argentine Marxist: but he is also a cap, a t-shirt, a mug, a poster, an icecream flavour (“Cherry Guevara”), and the basis of high-couture “military wear” – which the relevant website tells us is “the quintessential revolutionary fashion-warfare statement.”
We might be inclined to see these kinds of gestures as cheap – even cynical – capitalist exploitations of genuine political symbols and figures, that to associate the hammer and sickle with a brand is a distortion of the worst kind. Or, one might argue that communism translates so very well into branding because, in a sense, that’s all it ever really was: an advertisement of a utopia-to-come that never quite existed.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the kinds of emotional upswings occasioned by dressing in red and cheering the revolutionary cliche - that exciting statement which demands our assent at the precise moment we become unsure of what it is that we’re shouting. In the late ‘60s, French leftist became experts at this species of declamation: “Be Realistic – Demand the Impossible!” or “The Dream is Reality!” were among the calls heard around Paris in May 1968; as examples, they fit very well into the history of revolutionary rhetoric. It is equally important, however, to note that they could also just as well be titles for books by Dr Phil or slogans spruiking the newest Windows operating system. In many respects, revolution represents one of the most successful marketing campaigns of the last two hundred years.
As such, revolution and the revolutionary are symbols to which artists, a certain kind of politician, and even ordinary mortals, are continually drawn. And there can indeed be much to celebrate about a revolution – but, in political terms at least, this is more often for what a revolution deposes than what it brings in its stead. The greatest danger in this sort of enthusiasm is a muddying of the difference between these two facets of most radical political change: a just deposition of a tyranny on the one hand, and an incomprehensible nostalgia for the corrupt political system that followed that deposition, on the other.
Of course, not all countries are comfortable with the revolutionary flavours of modern cool, even in its ironic guises. Moscow may still be home to the Red October Chocolate Factory and Aeroflot uniforms continue to carry the hammer and sickle, but in other parts of Eastern Europe certain communist symbols are banned for their associations with a history of totalitarian horror. This is, in the very least, understandable. But for much of the world, the revolution has become simply a symbol of cool, of tattooed arms raised against imaginary foes for indiscernible reasons – arms then lowered and fists promptly unclenched once the foccacias have arrived.
Indeed, surveying trendy cafés, YouTube à la mode, and the smattering of communist rallies does little to shake the feeling that - for most of the world - revolution has become so pure, so metaphysical, that either it never ends - or, alternatively, hardly seems to take place at all.
Dr. Chris Fleming is a senior lecturer in Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney.
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