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‘Something for every revolutionary’—review of Enzo Traverso’s Revolution: an intellectual history

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Enzo Traverso’s new book squares up to the distortion around revolutions which acts to extinguish our striving for change, writes Charlie Kimber
The book cover for Revolution, an intellectual history. It has a brown background with white and red lettering

Enzo Traverso offers an analysis into into the symbols and memory of revolution (Picture: Verso)

What are socialists trying to achieve? We can argue about what socialism would look like, but there’s also the wholly linked fundamental issue about how we are trying to reach our goal.

If your vision is of tinkering with details of the present system, then winning a parliamentary election and ushering through some legislative shifts seems enough. And equally, if you are in principle committed to just the electoral road then you will have to accept that you are not going to tear up the whole basis of society.

If you want to destroy capitalism then you have to embrace some form of revolutionary change.

It’s become more popular to talk about the need for revolution—to confront catastrophic climate chaos or to tear out the roots of oppression. But often when it comes down to political practice, the prescription is for a version of some sort of radical reformism. It might be the latest venture of the parliamentary left such as Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Nupes alliance in France, or the yearning for Jeremy Corbyn to launch some new electoral project.

In another register it might be the ex-Labour Liverpool councillors’ drive to build a group focused on intensely local ‘community activity’.

But, very refreshingly, Enzo Traverso wants to talk about real revolutions, and rescue the word from smears and dilution. He wants to reclaim revolution as a realistic and necessary objective. He says this can answer the “great dilemma of our time… the conflict between resignation and hope, between capitulation and renaissance, between tragic impotence in the face of extensive defeat and the desperate effort to resist”.

The book’s ambition is stated from the beginning, using a quote from Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. “The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”

As Traverso comments, “The sudden synchronization between the cumulative changes that take place over the decades along with the reawakening of the collective consciousness produce a cataclysm that changes the course of history.”

For a large part of historical commentary, revolutions are now safely filed into the category of studies of tyranny. There might be nods to the original moments of liberatory aspiration of the Russian revolution, but the real object of study is the triumph of Stalinism and the following decades of terror, repression and dictatorship. Far from being a template for human emancipation, revolution is much more likely to be catalogued in genocide studies.

Traverso squares up to that distortion which acts to extinguish our striving for change. Revolutions enter the world like “an earthquake that human beings live and embody collectively”, he says. They are “intensely lived” and “display a quantity of energies, passions, affects and feelings much higher than the spiritual standard of ordinary life”.

During a revolution, he insists, life takes on a stunning intensity. In a break from the stultifying reality of normal life, people grasp an awareness of their own strength and their capacity to change the world.

As Traverso commented in an interview, “Many witnesses depicted revolutions as a feeling of lightness, like the characters of Chagall’s paintings who—overcoming the law of gravity—enjoy flying over villages and hills.”

The book is stuffed with examples. One tactic Traverso adopts is to quote opponents of revolution who nevertheless grasp, and fear, what is happening.

In his 1850 Recollections about the French revolution of 1848, the aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville gives a remarkable description of a capital conquered by the labouring classes during the February uprising.

“I spent the whole afternoon walking about Paris. Two things, in particular, struck me: the first was the unique and exclusively popular character of the revolution that had just taken place; the omnipotence it had given to the people properly so-called—that is to say, the classes who work with their hands—over all others.”

The second thing he noticed was the sense of calm and seriousness that convinced him the “lower order had suddenly become masters of Paris”.

In writing that echoes people writing later about the Russian or Spanish revolutions, Tocqueville says, “The people alone bore arms, guarded the public buildings, watched, gave orders, punished; it was an extraordinary and terrible thing to see all this immense town, so full of riches, in the sole hands of those who possessed nothing.”

He did not like it, adding, “It was only to be compared to that which the civilised cities of the Roman Empire must have experienced when they suddenly found themselves in the power of the Goths and Vandals.” But he could not avoid setting down what was one of the earliest examples of the masses, who included workers, collectively forcing their way onto the scene.

Traverso demands that this history matters. He sees it as both a strength and a weakness that the “new anti-capitalist movements of recent years do not resonate with any of the left traditions of the past. They lack a genealogy”. It enables them to think anew about how to win, but at the same time it throws away both the positives of the past and the errors to avoid.

“The revolutions of our time must invent their own models, they cannot do so from a clean slate”, Traverso notes. They have to embody “the memory of past struggles, whether these are victories or, more frequently, defeats. This is undoubtedly a work of mourning, but also of training for future battles”.

The book is not a chronology of revolutions or an analysis of key themes. Instead it ranges over issues such as revolutionary symbols and memory; revolution and the body; freedom and liberation; and much more.

A fascinating chapter on railways looks at the tensions and similarities of Karl Marx’s “revolutions are the locomotives of history” with Walter Benjamin’s “Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to pull the emergency brake.”

Nearly every page contains a fact or example that is fresh and useful. I did not know, for example, that by 1920 the Red Army had 120 armoured trains and just how they were critical to the defeat of the White armies.

There’s a brilliant section on how progressive movements sweep away the symbols and statues of the old regimes they are replacing. Anyone involved in the arguments about Black Lives Matter (BLM) and slavers’ statues would find it captivating.

In August 1792—as part of the French revolution—the National Assembly enacted a decree that prescribed the systematic destruction of all monuments erected to “prejudice”, “tyranny” and “feudality”.

In February 1848—in another act of revolutionary France—many portraits of Louis-Philippe were destroyed or disfigured, and processions headed by the bust of the overthrown king, with a rope around his neck, swept through several French cities. In May 1871 the Paris Commune demolished the Place Vendome column, a symbol of militarism, imperialism, “false glory” and “an insult by the victors to the vanquished”.

Other revolutions “deployed a similar iconoclastic fury”. Arriving in Barcelona in December 1936, George Orwell observed that “every church had been gutted and its images burnt” and that “some of the foreign anti-fascist papers even descended to the pitiful lie of pretending that churches were only attacked when they were used as fascist fortresses”.

But Orwell pointed out, “Actually, churches were pillaged everywhere and as a matter of course, because it was perfectly well understood that the Spanish Church was part of the capitalist racket.”

It brings home the fact that far from BLM activists carrying out a wave of unacceptable vandalism, they have only scratched the surface of the change that will come with a revolution in Britain.

Traverso is also very good on the importance of symbols of transformation and the need for audacity. The taking of the Bastille in 1789 was originally just a practical necessity: to obtain powder for weapons. But it quickly turned into an act of iconic destruction. The fortress held only seven prisoners, but it had been a symbol of aristocratic rule since the Middle Ages.

In his History of the French Revolution—written some 50 years after the events it describes—Jules Michelet sets out what a tough task the Parisian people faced.

“The Bastille, though an old fortress, was nevertheless impregnable. The people had neither the time nor the means to make a regular siege. Had they done so, the Bastille had enough provisions to wait for succour so near at hand, and an immense supply of ammunition.

“Its walls, ten feet thick at the top of the towers, and thirty or forty at the base, might long laugh at cannon balls. Its towers, pierced with windows and loop-holes, protected by double and triple gratings, enabled the garrison, in full security, to make a dreadful carnage of its assailants.”

It’s easy to imagine the arguments as compromisers and waverers argued for delay and negotiations. But, as Michelet concludes, the seizure of the Bastille was an act inspired and allowed by the irresistible strength of the insurgent people, not based on a calculated assessment of the balance of forces. Far from being reasonable, he emphasizes, “it was an act of faith”.

How to explain this successful attack? The answer, Michelet suggests, lies in the symbolic dimension of this building. “The Bastille was known and detested by the whole world. Bastille and tyranny were, in every language, synonymous terms.” Eventually “the Bastille was not taken; it surrendered”.

Although Traverso does not use the example, the Russian revolution went through similar arguments. Trotsky described how on the eve of the October revolution the “enemies of the insurrection in the ranks of the Bolshevik party itself found sufficient ground for pessimistic conclusions”.

They pointed out that the provisional government had thousands of soldiers apparently securely under its command. It had “a very considerable quantity of artillery spread out fan-wise around Petrograd”.

But Trotsky insisted that “when society openly splits, both armies are copies of the two warring camps. The army of the possessors contained the wormholes of isolation and decay”.

Trotsky was not demanding offensive tactics whatever the odds. But he insisted that “a moment comes when the habit of regarding the enemy as stronger becomes the greatest hindrance to conquest. Today’s weakness of the bourgeoisie hides itself, so to say, under the shadow of its yesterday’s strength”.

Traverso does not shrink from the question of violence, which many theorists would prefer to avoid. He quotes approvingly Frantz Fanon’s description as “violence in its natural state” and therefore that “it will only yield when confronted with greater violence”.

Certainly any revolutionary should wholeheartedly support the right of the oppressed to use whatever means they choose against their colonial and imperial overlords. But is it really a programme for the Palestinian people to say that the Israeli state and its US backer can be beaten only by ‘greater violence’?

Traverso is right that revolutions do need to be ready to use violence. The ruling class is ruthless and prepared to destroy its enemies through the most gore-soaked means. Look at how the US and its allies have turned large parts of the world into killing fields for profit and power, despite the lack of a genuine threat to its entire system. Pacifism leaves that system intact.

This is a live issue. In Sudan, revolutionaries are determined (obsessed would not be an unfair word) by their principled commitment to non-violence. They embrace this partly for moral reasons, partly as a unifying element that keeps people on board and partly as a form of appeal to the ‘international community’: imperialism.

Certainly, the example of Syria—where the revolution became militarised and civil war destroyed half a country—should weigh heavily in anyone’s calculations. But the total repudiation of all violence means no opportunity to discuss carefully the possibility of mass resistance, guns in hand, against the coup regime’s armed forces. The forces in Sudan who raise this issue are right to do so.

Mass movements and workers’ collective ability to strike and organise alternative structures of democracy are crucial. But there are also moments when the brutality of the rulers, or former rulers, has to be met by defensive force. Without a readiness to use guns, the Kornilov coup could have ended the Russian revolution in August 1917, ushering in a form of fascism.

Traverso quotes anarchist-turned-Bolshevik Victor Serge from Petrograd in 1919 where it is “war to the death with no humanitarian hypocrisy”. Even here it’s important to stress that the Russian revolution did not seek violence. It was indeed the greatest anti-killing movement in history, by ending the First World War on the Eastern front and encouraging the revolution in Germany.

A section on barricades and their sometimes-symbolic role is also relevant to Sudan today. Look at the pictures of the structures thrown up in Khartoum and you wonder why the activists bother—they are so flimsy that they would not stop any serious military force.

But of course the barricades are primarily a sign of defiance, a line that the cops and soldiers should not cross. They mark out ‘our’ territory liberated from the coup regime.

It is, however, weakened by Traverso’s lack of analysis of Stalinism and ‘really existing socialism’. He says that after 1989 we became “spiritually rootless”. But that’s true only if it was a break from a project of liberation. For those who understood Stalinism as the opposite of 1917’s hopes, the division had taken place decades before. So 1989 was no cause for mourning.

Traverso does not say much about the future of revolutions, which may not be the preserve of the historian, but it is still nevertheless an urgent necessity in a world of overlapping crises and catastrophes, and resistance.

‘Modern’ revolution requires a sharp rejection of present political methods. During the First World War Lenin stated that the previous methods of socialist organisation were dead. He was looking at the horrors of a global conflict spawned by imperialism and the collapse of Labour-type parties into support for their ‘own’ ruling classes. Instead what was needed was a party and a movement centred on revolution.

Previously there had been a trade unionism confined to agitation over wages and conditions. Separately there was a parliamentary grouping focused on elections and votes. A pacifism opposed wars from the basis of individual revolt and personal refusal to fight. Feminism largely pushed for formal equality with men within the present system.

The war exploded all this. Trade unions acted as cops in the factory, driving up production for the technology of slaughter. The ‘left’ parliamentary parties mostly acted as recruiting sergeants. Pacifism was ineffectual against the great structural forces causing war. Feminism split between a few who opposed the whole system and the majority who shamed men for not signing up.

There needed to be a new party focused on action in the workplaces and the streets, wholly opposed to imperialism, and dedicated to the overthrow of the capitalist state and the corporations it protected. It had to be for fundamental change, not for manoeuvres within the existing system.

The Russian revolution of 1917 showed that such a party could lead the working class to conquer power. It’s a lesson and a method we need again.

Read this book. It has something for every revolutionary.

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