The state, and revolution, Part II: View from a Public Square Closed to the Public

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

This is the third and final installment of “The state, and revolution,” following the introduction and “Part I: The Revolution Reshuffled.”

The new age needed only the hide of the revolution—and this was being flayed off people who were still alive. Those who then slipped into it spoke the language of the Revolution and mimicked its gestures, but their brains, lungs, livers and eyes were utterly different.

—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (1960), trans. Robert Chandler (2006)

Scholarly interpretations of modern revolutions used to revolve around the idea of the state as the main structure for understanding them—mostly in national, sometimes in comparative, perspective. Since the last decade of the Cold War, however, many of the revolutions, which used to be known as English, French, American, Chinese, Irish, Russian, or Cuban, have been gradually placed in a different kind of order: like Grossman’s words, they began to enter into dialogue with other post-revolutionary legacies, aligned on an imperial meridian, put on a global scale, or, on the contrary, shrunk to the space of a single house. While some of the national labels have disappeared behind inverted commas, the very idea of ‘revolution’ has recently been replaced by a new interest in civil wars and the ‘roads not taken’. Peace itself is increasingly seen as a postwar pretext for new disputes over sovereignty, and the hybrid realities of paramilitary violence are being examined in terms of their effects on mass migration. This kind of revisionism is no longer just a reaction to the supposed end of history, but arguably, the beginning of a new response to the issues we are all facing in the present.

In contrast to this academic trend, most public responses to the latest centenaries are still wrapped in national flags, or at least, in national kinds of silences. In March 2016, I was briefly in Dublin, just before the centenary of the Easter Rising. A minimal common narrative of events appeared to have emerged, as the city was preparing for a large crowd, many of them from abroad.

1 Dublin airport 2016 photo dg

A stack of books on 1916, Dublin Airport (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

2 Dublin 2016 parade announcement

Poster announcing the parade (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

Some public history projects even revived the language of revolution to establish a connection between the events of Easter 1916, modern Irish sovereignty, and other world events. In Parnell Square, a uniformed “Patrick Pearse” read aloud the 1916 Proclamation every day at midday.

In 1916, one of the buildings in Parnell Square, the Ambassador Theatre, had served as the backdrop to a famous photo marking the defeat of the Rising by the British, who posed with an inverted Irish flag, which they had captured from the Citizen Army. In 2016, an exhibition by Sinn Féin used the building to show some original objects from the revolution, and a reconstruction of Kilmainham Gaol,  where the sixteen men of the Rising had been executed.

3 Parnell Square

The Ambassador Theatre at Parnell Square (photo by Dina Gusejnova)

Visitors were encouraged to take selfies and portraits while listening to recordings of their last words, and it was particularly striking to see a mother doing a photo-shoot of her children in front of the sandbags.

4 Ambassador 2

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

What a contrast to Russia where, in April 2017, nobody was reading the April Theses aloud, neither in St. Petersburg nor in Moscow. Granted, Moscow’s Red Square was certainly not as central to the revolution as Petrograd’s Palace Square had been, but it was, still, an important site of revolutionary action in November and December of 1917. Since the Bolsheviks had transferred the capital here, channeling the older, Muscovite center of Russian power, it remained the symbol of Soviet and now post-Soviet claims to global influence. Yet the one set of events that epitomizes this universal aspiration does not suit current plans. Instead, as always at the end of April, preparations were in full swing for the celebrations of an anniversary that the government felt more comfortable with: the Victory of 1945. In April 2017, the public square was therefore routinely closed to the public.

One of the visitors to the Square that month was Richard Bourke, professor of the history of political thought and co-director of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London. He had travelled to Moscow to attend a conference at the Higher School of Economics. Bourke’s recent intellectual biography of Edmund Burke places Burke’s responses to the revolutions of his age in an imperial, transatlantic, and party political context, disentangling Burke from his later image as a rhetorician of reaction. With Ian McBride, Bourke has recently also co-edited the Princeton History of Modern Ireland, and, with Quentin Skinner, Popular Sovereignty in Historical Perspective. I could not miss this occasion, therefore, to ask a few questions about the contrasting revolutionary legacies in Ireland and Russia, as they engage with the burden of anniversaries of 1916 and 1917.

Standing by the walls of the Kremlin, near a plaque marking the place where the eighteenth-century author Alexander Radishchev had been held prisoner before being deported to Siberia, offered a compelling setting for the discussion. The view of one-way traffic beneath the Kremlin towers, and a reference to W.B. Yeats, concludes these reflections on the politics and ethics of commemorations.

Video by Kseniya Babushkina


“Well, that is disappointing. This is my first visit, but when I arrive, it transpires that the Square is closed to the public.

Revolution as a foundation for political legitimacy—prudentially, that has to be discarded in Russia, surely; I can’t imagine the current government wanting to embrace it. Secondly, and equally challenging, there is the communist legacy itself: the attitude to capitalism and private property. Since attitudes to the original ideology have been so utterly transformed, what is there for the establishment today to take ownership of? 

For its part, Ireland is full of commemorations. So, in this case, historians tend to greet such festivities as an irresistible opportunity to publicize their views, and to generate putatively deep, manifestly more penetrating analyses than politicians can muster… whereas I think that risks ending up with a confusion of roles.

Before the Good Friday Agreement—before, that is, the current settlement of the Irish problem—commemoration had the power to rock the state. It was, in other words, a very serious thing. So, the peaceable passing of 2016 in Ireland is, from a political point of view, entirely gratifying.

The political utility of 1917—one can’t see that quite so readily at all. Hence, presumably, the reluctance to celebrate.

I see commemorations as essentially pieces of political theatre. I don’t regard directing them as the business of the historian. Presumably, in the Russian case now, a shared narrative is far more difficult to achieve by comparison with Ireland. There is a will to disavow the revolutionary legacy without that having ever been overtly articulated. On the other hand, in the recent Irish case, the Southern Irish state’s commitment to abjuring certain versions of the 1916 legacy during the thirty years of the Troubles [1968–1998] had already passed, and consequently the need for revolutionary disavowal had (as it were) already been “worked through” the polity by 2016.

With Ireland, you have to remember, in 1966—and that was just two years before the ‘reinauguration’ of the Troubles in 1968—and then over the next thirty years, the Southern state had to disown much of the legacy of 1916 for the next three decades. So, with the end of the Troubles, as a result, a certain distance between the Southern Irish state and the history of its own militancy was possible. Also, generally speaking, a mood of collaboration around a possible shared narrative emerged. There was a commitment all round to manufacturing—because these are essentially manufactured stories—to manufacturing a liberal, cosmopolitan vision: excavating the diverse roles of peoples in 1916; children in 1916; women in 1916—so a diversified picture, by comparison with the original “16 Dead Men” narrative. It was a sort of attempt to bring all parties on board: the British state could have a role, because they’d accepted all that now; Irish republicans could have a role; we could pretend that Northern Irish Protestants might have a role; we could pretend that we can fully acknowledge that the First World War at the time was a far bigger event in Irish history than 1916 had been—certainly, considerably larger numbers died. In effect, there was a mood of opening up to these diverse possibilities. Actually, it was quite a constrained vision, to be honest. But nonetheless, the self-congratulatory story was that tremendous “openness” was prospering, then and now. Having said that—having just put it critically—I was there in Ireland at the time for the centenary celebrations, and in truth I don’t think it was at all badly done. There was no inappropriate pomp: I went with my children, and it was perfectly inoffensive to be there. I am no purist: states habitually resort to such rites of passage, and it’s just a matter of coming up with productive versions of the fanfare—a conducive version of it.

There is one poem, just a single poem, which has had as large an influence on the interpretation of the events of 1916 on subsequent historiography as any other document or text—and that is, of course, W. B. Yeats’ poem of that title: ‘Easter 1916’. Many, many historical studies of the period invoke its version of what transpired. The final stanza poses a rhetorical question: Was it needless death after all? So, the poem has a provocative question at its very heart. And, in a way, that has the effect of casting doubt on the whole enterprise: it seems it was needless death, a vain exercise! That’s another way of asking: Was this whole undertaking without any positive justification? But then there’s a gear change in the poem, which amounts to proclaiming that, given the fact that a ‘terrible beauty’ has indeed been born, the national poet has no choice but to lay claim to the legacy of this martyrdom, and that’s what the author proceeds to do in the poem.

I am currently working on a book, which is on the relationship between the philosophy of history, on the one hand—that is to say, fundamental views about what drives the historical process, and its direction of travel—and, on the other hand, the effect of one’s philosophical commitment to a given vision of the kind upon one’s investment in particular historical narratives. So, basically, I am concerned with conceptions of progress, specifically the notion that history is progressing—a perspective that emerged in the eighteenth century as a basic, almost a priori assumption about historical development. I am interested in the connection between that assumption and the impulse to read events themselves as progressive or retrogressive. That amounts, in turn, to an interest in the very idea of being “on the right side of history” in the familiar sense—of deeming oneself to be making the right moral choices because these choices coincide with the overarching directionality of history. It is fascinating to reflect on how this mode of thinking about our world first emerged, and now frames our approach to the past and the future.

Despite the long shadow cast by the philosophy of history, practicing historians ought to think more multi-perspectivally about the past, and therefore in less partisan and party-driven ways. I think that’s an honorable vocation for historians, though it’s not always the one they choose.”

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

Anti-Imperialist Publications and Suspended Disbelief: Reading the Public Materials of the League Against Imperialism, 1927-1937

by guest contributor Disha Karnad Jani

“Why We Appear”: so begins the September-October 1931 issue of the Anti-Imperialist Review, the official journal of the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence (LAI). This organization was founded in 1927 and brought nationalists, Communists, socialists, and sympathizers together under the direction of the Communist International (Comintern) to organize a complex solution to a complex problem. Based in Berlin, then London, but arguably led from Moscow, the organization would disintegrate by 1937, despite the fanfare that accompanied its arrival in the anti-imperial spaces of the interwar period. Their inaugural sessions at the Palais d’Egmont in 1927 had resulted in an organization tasked with bringing empire to its knees, through the cooperation of all those who considered themselves “anti-imperialists.” As the attitude of the Comintern towards non-Communists and national bourgeois leaders hardened, the LAI turned away from this avowedly inclusive agenda. The socialist origins of the organization, when combined with the nationally-circumscribed aims of many involved, meant that the League’s rhetoric and activities reflected the complexities of a negative association such as “anti-imperialist.” These were the years during which men like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Hatta, Achmed Sukarno and J.T. Gumede met and forged links that contextualized and strengthened their decades-long struggles for freedom.

A historian seeking to understand this organization—and the tremendous significance of this moment for the long decades of nationalisms and decolonizations to come—will likely ask some basic questions. What did the League Against Imperialism look like? Who were the participants? How did this organization function? How did its members make decisions? What did it set out to do? To whom was it appealing?

Luckily, the answers to these questions lie in the LAI’s official publications, journals, and resolutions. Take the first piece in the Anti-Imperialist Review‘s September 1931 issue:

We are faced at the present moment with the need to draw up a concrete and detailed programme for the international anti-imperialist work in the spirit of the principles and organizational lines led down by the second World Congress and by the recent session of the Executive Committee [of the League Against Imperialism], a programme that will serve as a mighty weapon in the struggle for integrity of principle and against national reformism. This journal will systematically prepare for the working out of such a programme by free and open discussion. (Anti-Imperialist Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 5, author’s emphasis).

This publication is very clear in its aims and its desired audience. No national reformists or members of the bourgeoisie need read this journal. Only those truly committed to the liberation of the “struggling masses in the colonies and the revolutionary workers in the imperialist centers” need read further. The Review—as well as news bulletins, resolutions, and policy briefs emanating from Friedrichstrasse 24, Berlin between 1927 and 1933—present themselves as fostering a genuinely robust community of revolutionaries from all oppressed nations in order to bring about an end to imperialism and capitalism.

These statements of intent and organizational success do little for us, however, when we read them in concert with surveillance documents, correspondence, state archives, and the private papers of the people involved in decision making—such as the Executive Committee mentioned above. As Fredrik Petersson’s research has shown, the Communist International had a heavy hand in LAI proceedings, while the Eastern Secretariat in Moscow influenced the financial and ideological direction of the organization. The German Communist Willi Münzenberg had organized the initial meetings and later facilitated the LAI’s reorientation in policy towards a more hardline, anti-bourgeois stance in 1931. These goings-on highlight the often-chaotic shifts in larger forums that affected the way this purportedly international organization functioned.

But what was it like to be a part of an organization like this one, taking what its leaders said about free and open discussion and resistance led by the colonized at face value, without having access to the kinds of archives a historian can rely on to tell the behind-the-scenes story? If you learned about the LAI sometime in 1928, for example, at a meeting of one of its affiliated groups, how were you meant to remain connected to the larger struggle against imperial injustice? One way was through engaging with the language and rhetoric of the LAI’s circulated resolutions and its “official organ” the Anti-Imperialist Review. Once the conference in Brussels, Frankfurt, or Berlin was over and one went back home, participating in this grand project meant receiving things in the mail and reading them, and writing back.

Knowing this, is it possible to read the “official” publications coming from the central offices not as a façade to be torn away, but a material and intellectual facet of what it was like to see yourself as part of a transnational project of resistance?

As an exercise, I found it helpful to read at face value the materials put out by the League and disseminated through its national sections and sympathetic friends. At least some of the people reading the materials the LAI put out likely believed the image they provided of the state of world revolution (though the profusion of qualifiers here indicates, I hope, my discomfort with assuming the intentions of these people). What can be learned from reading this organization’s so-called “propaganda” as intellectual production, as a genuine desire to work through the problems of anti-imperial struggle? Whether or not the Comintern was coordinating its efforts, and whether or not its organizing capabilities and financial situation were up to the task it claimed, the LAI’s official public materials presented an upwardly-striving, robust, diverse, and yet united revolutionary entity. That means something, whether or not it was a strictly accurate depiction, since the language and affect associated to this day with the cosmopolitan and radical and transnational 1920s and 1930s were predicated on this sort of source material.

Allow me, for a moment, to consider the LAI’s policy or outlook in the year of its founding by reading sincerely the 1927 resolution of the LAI. This document was produced as a summary of the decisions made at the first meeting, and was widely circulated in the LAI’s affiliated circles. The involvement of so diverse a group of nationalists, pacifists, Communists, and socialists lends an institutional unity to the League’s proceedings, smoothing out divisions born of specific national and colonial differences. Since these resolutions were discussed and agreed upon in Brussels, once might consider these documents an amalgam of the least objectionable viewpoints of key actors, since the LAI operated at the beginning with a culture of consensus. There was little evidence at that moment of open, recorded controversy—everyone involved was at least an “anti-imperialist.”

In 1920, the relationship between communist elements in colonial countries and the national bourgeoisie and their revolutionary movement (for independence, justice, or dominion status) was still being worked out. A somewhat open and exploratory stance continued to evolve after Lenin’s death. By 1927, the LAI believed the time was right to proceed in a manner indicative of the planning stages of the prospective world revolution.

According to the LAI, it employed three main categories of person in 1927: the home proletariat, the oppressed people(s) and the toiling masses (“Statutes of the LAI, 1927,” League Against Imperialism Archives, International Institute of Social History, Int. 1405/4). The home proletariat was the class of workers in the imperialist country, who also suffered from imperialism. They suffered, the League argued, because the exploitation of cheap colonial labor through industrialization lowered the standards of living of the workers in the imperialist country. This was the main thrust of the League’s argument for the cooperation of this sector in the anti-imperialist struggle. This group was supposedly accessed and represented in the League by European trade unionists, left-leaning social democrats, and socialists more broadly.

This is the easiest category to “define,” because it is clearly delineated in terms of nationality and class. The categories of “oppressed people(s)” and “toiling masses” are a little more troublesome. They are indicative of the complicated relationship between socialism and nationalism in the context of the League’s aims. “The oppressed people” (singular) is usually used with a national qualifier, for example “the oppressed people of India.” “Oppressed peoples” indicates a plurality of national groups, and each national group is by definition taken as containing a single “people.” Toiling masses was a term used to distinguish the European proletariat from the colonial one, and the colonial national bourgeoisie from the colonial national proletariat. The “toiling masses” in the context of anti-imperialism in 1927 was likely a distinction reserved for the unorganized colonial worker, while the same stratum in the imperialist countries is referred to merely as “the workers” or “the proletariat.” This underscores the fact that Europe-oriented socialists (i.e. socialists from the imperialist countries) did not consider the “masses” of the colonial world to have realized their proletarian character.

The complexities and assumptions contained within these terms can explain the shifting and contextually circumscribed stakes of world revolution. Who were the actors in the kind of world revolution the LAI wanted? Its resolutions contain categories that overlap and describe courses of action that are at times complementary, and, at others, mutually exclusive. The messiness of this struggle, and the ways in which the men and women involved related to one another and to the groups they claimed to represent—the workers in imperial nations and the oppressed masses in their far-flung colonies—these most basic categories are potent ones. Is reconstructing a realistic narrative always the goal of the historian? In the end, perhaps. But during the long process of archival work and the necessary selection and omission of information, if only for a moment, it might be useful to believe our subjects when they make a claim we know is false, or at the very least, much more complicated. Widening the lens to include state surveillance, correspondence, private papers, and other organizations’ collections may provide a more accurate portrayal of what the LAI looked like and how it worked. But sometimes suspending disbelief at a claim as outlandish as one to “free and open discussion” in Communist circles in 1931 can yield a degree of clarity as to the lived experience of participating in such a project.

Disha Karnad Jani is a Ph.D student in History at Princeton University.