Revolution

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 While some of the national labels have disappeared behind inverted commas, the very idea of ‘revolution’ has recently been replaced by a new interest in civil wars and the ‘roads not taken’.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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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).

Revolution in the 21st Century: A Reflection on the Salon Sophie Charlotte at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities held its Salon Sophie Charlotte last weekend, an annual event during which the academy opens its doors to the public for an evening of guest discussions, presentations, and performances. This year’s theme, “Rebellion, Revolution, or Reform?” seemed especially prescient in our uncertain times and it did not fail to draw a crowd. (True to form, a spontaneous occupation of the stage by Berlin students defending the recently-terminated contract of a professor transpired, resulting in a shouting match between the occupiers and some tweed-clad members of the back row.) The mix of academic experts, artists, and the public made for a stimulating event, revealing perhaps the best of all possible worlds in which academics can engage the public with elements of conceptual history that have deep resonance today.

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-9-52-01-amThe role of music in times of rapid change surfaced in several venues throughout the evening. The tone was set for the evening by actress and singer Hanna Schygulla, who performed songs of resistance (among them the song of Italian anti-fascists in the 1940s, “Bella Ciao,” and “Ein Pferd klagt an,” a Brecht/Eisler classic). A conversation between Nike Wagner and Gerhard Koch and moderated by Ernst Osterkamp explored the role of music in revolution. Koch asserted that the performance of Daniel Auber’s opera La muette de Protici catalyzed the revolution in Belgium in 1830, during which the audience members burst forth from the theater and into the streets. Wagner offered a more tempered view, claiming that music could never assume the role of a revolution, but that without music, no revolutions could take place. Music, she continued, was not inherently revolutionary in a political sense, but could always take on this quality. The side-by-side quality of Auber’s artistic production and the revolutionary actions opened up the questions of whether the opera was causal, or if it had tapped into the prevailing mood.

Another banner session, “Is Europe too old for revolutions?” featured a mix of political practitioners and historians. The provocative title referred to the demographic trend in western Europe, which is home to an ever-growing aging population, but also to the enshrined traditions, behaviors, and comforts that might make a revolution impossible, or at least highly undesirable. The panel, moderated by historian Etienne François, featured ‘68er and later German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer alongside activist Jutta Sundermann and political scientist Herfried Münkler. François led off by asking what it meant to have a revolution, and if it was still possible in Europe today.

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A packed room prevented a decent picture of the panel “Is Europe too old for revolution?” (photo C. Taratko)

The practitioners (that is, Sundermann and Fischer) were critical of the term. Sundermann claimed that she no longer used the word and suggested that it perhaps belonged to previous generations. This was by no means to say that she and her contemporaries were no longer engaged for change, but that “revolution” was too abstract and perhaps carried with it too much negative baggage. Fischer was also skeptical. He insisted that political will is a prerequisite for change, but that it was better focused on institutions and laws that might need improvement. In light of his own peregrination from the Frankfurt left scene of the ‘60s to the corridors of power as a member of the Green Party, his response came off as typically distanced from his youthful roots.

“Revolution,” wrote Reinhart Koselleck, ”is a term now in vogue, but it is perhaps more raddled than its users’ would like to believe.” Is it the case that revolution in Europe is a romantic notion kept alive by academics and the vestiges of the student movement that live on in German universities? François felt confident that revolution was no longer Marx’s “locomotive of history” but instead was a common term in conversation, somewhat banalized and used as a descriptor for incremental change.

While the panelists seemed to take for granted that revolution was essentially modern, Münkler provided a brief conceptual history of the term. For him, its history begins with the Dutch throwing off Spanish control. The Dutch may have been the first, but it was the the German peasants’ revolt counted as the first people’s revolution, an important development that has since become an intrinsic part of the idea. The idea that change could bubble up from below, was, according to Münkler, new. Social change and the empowerment of lower classes gradually crept into the concept and took up residence there.

Münkler offered a perspective from the longue durée, one that was less interested in the immediate circumstances and effects than the overall conceptual history of the term. Others, especially Fischer, highlighted the highly-specific conditions under which revolutions, such as those experienced in France or Russia, took place. These stories of increasing tension led to a breaking point. In this sense, he argued, there was no paradigmatic revolution. Fischer closed with a sort of plea: he insisted that large political shifts are now outdated; if one looks at the past century, one can see the price of the German social state and how valuable it is, and that it should not be dismantled but carefully adjusted. For him, the “revolutionary tasks” that remained were in technology and nature.

Predictably, the consensus here leaned towards the improbability of another revolution in Europe. The Salon Sophie Charlotte provided a forum for a discussion of revolution as a diachronic concept, but also as a practice. The possibility for further political and social revolution was dismissed. Instead stability, and a desire to institutionalize the hard-won principles of earlier revolutions, seemed to guide the speakers. I wonder if perhaps the concept, at least as the panelists (all roughly of the same generation and somewhere on the left of the political spectrum) had framed it, has lost its purchase on reality. The music, it must be said, had not.

“Jules Verne would roll over in his grave,” or Döblin on the Future

by guest contributor Carolyn Taratko

Migrants streaming into Europe’s cities, postcolonial conflicts brought home, Greenland’s melting ice sheet, scientists emancipated from nature’s constraints through the use of genetic engineering; these sound like today’s headlines, but in fact they come from the pages of Alfred Döblin’s novel Berge Meere und Giganten (1924). It narrates the story of humans between the twenty-third and twenty-eighth centuries. Along general lines, it is a story of bipolar world of great, urbanized powers, East and West, a catastrophic war (the Uralische Krieg), and the quest for new areas of settlement in Greenland to relieve growing population pressure. Its epic form allows for many digressions: descriptions of landscapes modified by technology, war and hubris, accounts of battles and love triangles burdened by cultural baggage in a world of empowered, even ferocious women. It is, in one word, staggering. The force of the imagination behind this work is a wonder in itself.

Alfred Döblin (c. 1930s)

Alfred Döblin (c. 1930s)

This earlier novel by the author of the famed Berlin, Alexanderplatz runs over 600 pages and resists any neat summary. Günter Grass once described it as “written as if under visionary influence.” Döblin clarified his goal: to write so that “Jules Verne would roll over in his grave” (Döblin, AW, Brief an Efraim Frisch, 2. Nov. 1920, 120). Yet it has largely been forgotten, partly due to the fact that scholars are unsure of how to handle such works. Among historians utopian/dystopian works are a relatively underexplored source, liable to be written off as curiosities. It is as if the act of marveling at their visionary power, at the uncanny “accuracy” of the predictions held within such fictions somehow precludes taking them seriously.

Döblin began work on Berge Meere und Giganten in the fall of 1921, a year after the publication of his historical novel Wallenstein, set during the Thirty Years War. He oriented the project around the question, “What will become of man, should he continue to live in this way?” The time he spent researching, he reported to friends, was marked by extreme physical exertion and a neurotic state that bordered on mania. Döblin’s time at a military hospital Alsace-Lorraine during the First World War had brought him into direct contact with the horrors of the war that serve as the origin of this fictional universe. The recurring images of flesh mangled by machines that appear in the novel are hardly writerly abstractions.

Wider political forces also gave life to this novel. Contemporary observers and generations of historians have commented on the crisis-ridden years of the Weimar Republic. There is no doubt that, in Detlev Peukert’s words, the “birth trauma” of the Weimar Republic in the November Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles left the German government vulnerable to a prolonged crisis of legitimacy. Saddled with reparations, bound with demands for disarmament and dealing with maimed territory, the young republic faced challenges both at home and abroad. But for Döblin it was the failure of the 1918/19 Revolution (which he would later make the subject of a four-volume historical novel) that proved to be the most colossal disappointment. How to move forward? What had once seemed to be the best hope for the future – Social Democracy– had been largely discredited and hollowed out. Döblin experienced outrage, supplanted by recognition.

His outrage was best articulated in his journalism from these years. But even for as sharp an eye as Döblin, reportage and satire had its limits. Within the framework of a historical novel, Döblin was able to pursue a different “truth.” The novel, he wrote, is privilege to its own truth—not the “facts” of journalists or of white-bearded historians (Döblin seems quite unimpressed with the latter group), but personal and social truth (Echtsheitscharakter). It could address gender relations, love, marriage, friendship—in short, things that no newspaper and serious history book could illuminate. Such were the arguments Döblin marshaled in favor of the historical novel, whose setting in the past granted it a certain degree of plausibility. A novel set in the distant future failed to offer such security.

If Döblin was convinced of the power of the historical novel to represent and critique, why did he spend years drafting a novel set in a distant future, a space that would unsettle the reader and court the bounds of plausibility? We can see from his years of embittered reportage that Döblin was ready to take his critique not only of Weimar Germany and of the increasingly apparent tendencies of urbanization, mass culture, rationalization in the “the West” one step further.

Döblin did not make the jump to utopian fiction in 1921 in isolation. Utopian works gained wider currency as a genre and intellectual project in the early twentieth century. Novelists turned towards future-oriented, experimental forms, academics began to take utopia seriously as objects of analysis, and across the political spectrum in Germany such projects were embraced as a means of representing a world worth striving for. As the sociologist Hans Freyer wrote in 1920, utopia constituted a “creative form of practical rationality.” Rüdiger Graf has identified the transformation that the term “utopia” underwent in the early twentieth century, shedding its earlier fantastical and pejorative sense to become recognized as a form of critical debate at the very heart of the emerging social-scientific project. The intensified interest in utopia followed from a general acceptance that these constructions (no longer just fictions) acted as a determining force in political behavior. Graf has charted the development of utopian studies alongside sociology; the two represented twin approaches to understanding the crisis of the 1920s. In the wake of the World War, the Russian Revolution and revolutionary events that swept across Europe, a dawning awareness of the contingency and malleability of circumstances was accompanied by an acceptance of utopian discourse. Graf refers to this process as a radicalization of Reinhart Koselleck’s concept of the Sattelzeit: an intensified encounter in which the horizon of expectation overtakes that of experience.

And here we must return to Döblin. Seen in this light, Berge Meere und Giganten is no mere flight of fancy; it is a rigorous exercise in historical imagination and continuity. Within Döblin’s novel we can see the horizon of expectation playing out in front of our eyes in lurid detail, defying any neat summary.

Carolyn Taratko is a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University. For the 2014-2015 academic year, she is based at the Freie Universität in Berlin. Her current research focuses on resource management and perceptions of crisis in late nineteenth- and early twentieth century Germany.