‘The revenge of history is more powerful than the revenge of the most powerful General Secretary.’
– Leon Trotsky
How do you mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy in which monopoly capitalism has created the greatest income inequality in Europe, and which, because of this, the spectre of socialism – if not quite communism – is haunting for the first time in forty years? In accordance with the role art and culture has been assigned under late capitalism, the UK state’s primary response has been to put on exhibitions and performances at its major institutions of culture that – much like frescoes in pre-Reformation churches – explain the perils of revolution to the historically illiterate middle classes. To this end, 2017 has seen shows at the Royal Academy of Arts, the Design Museum, the British Library, the Royal Festival Hall and the Tate Modern – and that’s just in London alone. And as we entered October and the anniversary of the terrible ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ approached, a series of documentaries and dramas appeared on our primary instrument of state propaganda, the British Broadcasting Corporation, of which a special mention should go to the hilarious Russia 1917: Countdown to Revolution, which dragged out every right-wing talking head the establishment could produce to carry out character assassinations of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. But amid this state-sanctioned programme of political enlightenment for the masses, there have been other, independent responses to the Russian Revolution, ones that focus not on its art or demonising its protagonists, but on the historical lessons it contains for those looking for something more than the propaganda of an increasingly crisis-ridden capitalism, repressive civil state and morally bankrupt parliament.
1. Art and Ideology
When Hitler wanted to reject the practitioners of modern art that had twice rejected him, first in 1907 and again in 1908, when he applied to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, the Nazis dutifully held the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich in 1937. Among its examples of ‘Degenerate Art’ were works by the Russian artists El Lissitzky, Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky. Unfortunately for the Nazis this exhibition proved enormously popular with the German public, and was far better attended than the contemporaneous Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition) held around the corner, with nearly three-and-a-half times as many visitors. As a method of propaganda we might call this the ‘ridicule’ response, which never works well as a tool of fascism, which is a strictly humourless ideology.
Stalin took a different approach and simply banned what was denounced as ‘bourgeois art’ from contemporary exhibitions in the Soviet Union, even though Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum contained some of modernism’s greatest works. These included the Suprematist, Constructivist and other avant-garde practices that by 1928, when Stalin abolished the private enterprises permitted under the New Economic Policy, fell under state control, and which contradicted the principles of Socialist Realism that by 1934 had been codified as the official art of the Soviet Union. This is the ‘censorship’ response more typical of totalitarian regimes, and – since every prohibition inspires its transgression – might be said to be one of the mechanisms of its ultimate failure as an ideology.
By contrast, under the monopoly capitalism of our own society, the culture industry has with expert efficiency taken the opportunity to dismiss communism as inherently totalitarian on this, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts set the ideological framework; and subsequent shows have followed suit. The central argument of these lavishly presented spectacles is that the Russian Revolution undoutedly produced some formally interesting art – for a while; and that certain socialist ideas may be acceptable when mediated through a social democracy within a capitalist economy; but in practice, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, communism didn’t work and – what is most important to remember – it never can. This can be called the response of what in 1980s art discourse was called ‘recuperation’, which despite having fallen into disuse as a critical term is one of the key reasons for the almost total hegemony of capitalist culture across the globe, from a McDonalds fast-food outlet in Moscow’s Pushkin Square to fragments of the Berlin Wall on display in the receptions of Wall Street banks.
A fourth response is that adopted by the last remaining vestiges of socialism in the UK, which is largely composed of Western Marxists – which is to say, academic theorists, archive fetishists and fellow travellers of the Labour Party. These have organised any number of symposia and conferences about 1917 that have sagely debated the history of the Russian Revolution while the class war outside their windows is everywhere increasing. This might be called the approach of ‘nostalgia’, which can sip Stolichnaya in front of the endlessly replayed films of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, but can’t save a single council estate from being demolished by international property developers in collusion with the UK state, or raise a single barricade in the war that’s being waged at every level of UK society – economic, political, legal and cultural – against the working class.
Although it rapidly fell into dictatorship and totalitarian rule – and this article will look at some of the contexts for its decline – the Russian Revolution was still the most significant working-class uprising of the Twentieth Century, to which ridicule, censorship, recuperation or nostalgia are all inadequate responses in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland of 2017. Communism was once – and might again be – a progressive ideology that looks always to the future when learning from the past about how to act in the present. A more adequate response, therefore, might begin with the official responses of our own society, and at some of the questions these raise about how we can respond to the sweeping political changes that are happening in this country right now, and which the marking of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in the UK is designed to serve.
At last year’s celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End, the Labour Party that had advised appeasing Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts back in 1936, and whose local council is today socially and ethnically cleansing the area of its working class population more effectively than the Luftwaffe, nevertheless took control of a commemorative march that was shepherded by the same cops that fought – and continue to fight – on the side of capitalists and fascists against communists, anarchists and the local population. As this farcical repetition of history demonstrated, every official act of remembrance is a deliberate act of forgetting what is happening in the present.
2. The Art of Capitalist Propaganda
The Royal Academy
At the start of the year the Royal Academy of Arts kicked off with Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 (11 February-17 April) – an odd title, given that in 1922 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was made up of 15 different countries. This was perhaps the most ideologically curated show I’ve ever seen, in which every expression of communist ideas, from the Constructivist textile designs of Varvara Stepanova to the figurative oil paintings of Boris Kustodiev, were presented under the approaching shadow of Stalin. Even contemplating socialism, was the loud and clear message to those who could afford the £16 entrance fee, will lead directly to the gulag. It was as if an exhibition on Cubism accused Picasso and Braque of being apologists for French colonialism and European imperialism (which is, I imagine, precisely what students of political correctness would see in them nowadays). The work on show was fascinating to see, particularly the Socialist Realist paintings of Aleksandr Deyneke, which you rarely get to see in this country; but from the first room to the last this was a political hatchet job by the curators, who as employees of the Royal Academy of Arts and the Courtauld Institute of Art I imagine think they’re still working for MI5 (and perhaps they are).
Despite the show being defined by a historical period, 1917 to 1932, the rooms were arranged thematically, so visitors were never given an idea of the historical events in response to which the works were made, or the competing ideas about what the role of art in the Revolution should be. The wall texts that should have supplied this information were instead unremittingly negative, damning every initiative in advance to inevitable failure. They explained nothing about, for instance, the mass emigration of the middle class after the October Revolution, which left Russia without much of its technocracy; the subsequent Civil War launched with the financial and military backing of the Western imperialist nations; about the revolutionary conception of the role of the artist as engineer of proletarian minds rather than entertainer of bourgeois tastes; the use of agitprop trains travelling the length and breadth of the Soviet Union to communicate Bolshevik ideology through pamphlets, books and films; the founding of art schools like VKhUTEMAS (Higher Art and Technical Studios) and groups like UNOVIS (Champions of the New Art) and the OSA (Organisation of Contemporary Architects); the explosion of invention in cinema and photography; the exchange of ideas with Berlin Dada and the Bauhaus; or more generally about the huge influence the art of the Russian Revolution had on the rest of Europe and the world.
In an exhibition claiming to be about this art, the show contained almost no works of Constructivism, the most avant-garde movement to come out of the Revolution, with only a couple of photographs by Aleksandr Rodchenko and two paintings by Lyubov Popova. Kazimir Malevich was better represented, but the handful of abstract paintings on show from the revolutionary Suprematist work he made between 1913 and the late 1920s were presented in the context of the Royal Academy’s careful reconstruction of the Malevich room at the exhibition ‘15 Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic’, which had been held in Leningrad in 1932, and is repeatedly cited as an example of Malevich’s state-enforced return to figuration. Another reconstruction was of Vladimir Tatlin’s 1932 Letatlin, looking like something out of Leonardo’s notebooks on the mechanics of flight against the gilded ceiling of the Royal Academy, with little of the radicalism of his early work. While El-Lissitzky, as far as I can remember, had a single work on show, his iconic Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge of 1919 – presumably included because it decorated a hundred tea mugs, dish cloths, T-shirts, watches and cufflinks on sale to the public as they exited through the gift shop. Photography was not permitted in the exhibition.
Instead, the entire first room of the exhibition was given over to conventionally realist portraits of Lenin and Stalin as evidence of the cult of personality they served after the former’s death in 1924; another to mostly photographic portraits of individual artists – that most beloved of capitalist genres and the antithesis of the communist emphasis on the collective; another, bizarrely titled ‘Eternal Russia’, to everything the Royal Academy managed to get on loan but didn’t know what to do with; and a fourth to the saccharine lyricism of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin – whom I can only imagine some London-based oligarch has recently acquired a shed-load of. Indeed, two of the exhibition’s three sponsors were foundations set up to launder the wealth of Leonard Blavatnik, who with an estimated worth of £16 billion is the second richest person in the UK, and the comparatively impecunious £1 billionaire Sergei Polonsky; with the third sponsor being the LetterOne Group, an international investment company based in the tax haven of Luxembourg that was set up by another Soviet-born, London-based billionaire, Mikhail Fridman, who with an estimated worth of £11.3 billion is ranked by Forbes as the second richest person in Russia.
Although I used to teach on some of this work to undergraduates, I’m not an expert on Soviet art; but this exhibition came across as if it had been put on by curators who know almost nothing about the historical period – which their CVs suggest otherwise – and, if they do, quite violently dislike the work. What is certain is that they violently oppose the idea of revolution in either art or politics. The summaries of the revolutionary years were like something out of a child’s guidebook to communism written by the CIA in the 1950s. Everything – every last idea – was interpreted as the herald of the inevitable triumph of Stalinism. Of course, with sponsors who made their billions from buying up Russia’s industries and natural assets at a tiny fraction of their future market value following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that’s hardly surprising. But as a result, walking through the rooms felt like listening to a braying and tediously repeated ‘I told you so’ from the smug mouth of the British establishment. And it all ended, quite incredibly, in a dark ‘Room of Memory’ containing police photographs of victims of the gulag – a sort of parallel to the Holocaust memorials so beloved of Westerners – and the most manipulative, cheap and contemptible bit of curating I think I’ve ever seen. The show’s overwhelming message, hammered home in room after room, is that all rebellion leads to totalitarianism – so keep quiet, do as you’re told, and leave things to the experts.
Still, what the exhibition did show is that the establishment is getting worried. If they’d laid a twenty-yard wide red flag in the forecourt of the Royal Academy and invited visitors to wipe their feet on it as they entered the building to the strains of Rule, Britannia! they couldn’t have been more blatant about the point of putting on this spectacle.
The Design Museum
In contrast, the exhibition at the Design Museum, Imagine Moscow: Architecture, Propaganda, Revolution (15 March-4 June) came across as a comparatively intelligent examination of the different idioms explored by Soviet artists in response to the questions posed to them by the Revolution, and specifically about the social role of art in communicating the principles of communism. It turned out that the dynamic abstract forms of Suprematism and Constructivism, both of which were well-represented in the show not only by El-Lissitzky, Tatlin, Rodchenko and Popova but also by Ivan Leonidov, Nikolai Ladovsky, Nikolai Sokolov, Ilya Chashnik and Nikolai Suetin, were only one – and certainly not the most dominant – of the ideas about what a socialist art might look like. To communicate with a mostly illiterate and culturally divergent peasantry speaking numerous languages across the 11 time zones of the Soviet Union, the far more widely used idioms were those of nineteenth-century political cartoons, realist illustration and avant-garde photo-montage.
The focus of the show, though, were 6 proposed and 1 realised designs for buildings in Moscow. Once again, the show ended on the thankfully unrealised bombast of Boris Iofan’s 1937 design for the Palace of the Soviets and the various versions of the lugubrious Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square (the only one of these projects to be built); but before this we got to look at Ladovsky’s 1920 Communal House, El-Lissitsky’s 1925 Horizontal Skyscraper, Leonidov’s 1927 Lenin Institute of Knowledge, and Sokolov’s 1928 Health Factory – all of which sought to place architecture in the service of revolutionary solutions to the pressing social issues of city planning, public housing, education, health and recreation – all of which are so lacking in the architectural visions of the future of London 100 years later. Of course, no such comparison was even hinted at in the exhibition, which presented these design solutions in purely formal terms. This was a view encouraged by the design of the exhibition space itself, which felt a little like being inside an El-Lissitsky ‘Proun’ – one of which had been reconstructed in three dimensions and placed in a vitrine.
The British Library
Shortly afterwards the British Library held a fascinating show, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths (28 April-29 August). This began a lot earlier chronologically, around the failed 1905 Revolution, and by doing so addressed some of the structures of power and exploitation from which the Russian proletariat and peasantry were struggling to free themselves. These included the 400-years of Tzarist autocracy that deprived almost all the population of any political agency; the power and wealth of the Russian Orthodox Church; the continuing legacy, despite the Emancipation reform of 1861, of 400 years of serfdom; the continued control of the land by the aristocracy in a country in which over 80 per cent of the population were peasants, leading to mass starvation and migration; the industrial crisis that lead to increased reliance on foreign imports; the resulting suppression of unions and industrial action among an underpaid and overworked proletariat; the imposition of a uniform Russian culture across an increasingly rebellious multi-ethnic Empire; the censorship of the press and freedom of speech and the imprisonment of political activists by the secret police; the disastrous Russo-Japanese War that exposed the technological backwardness of Tzarist Russia; the Tzar’s use of the army against its own people to suppress social unrest; and, finally, the Great War, in which the Russian Empire lost many of its western conquests (including all of Poland) and by 1917 had suffered nearly 6 million casualties in defeat after defeat to the advancing German and Austro-Hungarian armies.
The focus of the exhibition, however, were the years immediately after the successful 1917 Revolution, and the subsequent propaganda war between the Red and White Russians. In contrasting these, the show emphasised what is often forgotten by those ready to denounce the Bolsheviks as Stalinists in waiting: the enormous military opposition to the Revolution that Russia faced, with the Great War against Imperial Germany still waging on its western border; the ensuing Civil War that pitched them against the White Army backed by Europe’s most powerful Imperialist powers, including Britain and France, and which would claim between 7 and 12 million lives; as well as the war being waged on Russia’s Southern and Eastern borders. This gave some much-needed historical context to – without necessarily excusing – the ruthless measures to suppress rebellion and independence taken by Lenin and Trotsky. And rather than ending with the gulag, the exhibition concluded with a room of banners and posters that testified to the global reach of communism, some of which wouldn’t look too out of place on the streets of London today, with the standout image being a Soviet banner given to the Young Communist League of Shipley, the industrial textile town in West Yorkshire, pledging to support them in their struggle.
Within this narrative, however, the exhibition drew a strong distinction between the February revolution that brought in the Provisional Government and sought to oversee the transition of the Russian Empire to a capitalist state – a bourgeois revolution, in other words, that would place the middle classes in control of a democratically elected government – and the October revolution that overthrew that government and aimed to oversee the transition to a socialist republic. To this end, the exhibition’s wall texts described the former as being met with ‘optimism’ and enjoying ‘grassroots support’, while the latter was characterised as being brought about by the ‘revolutionary violence’ of a ‘small minority’ supported by returning soldiers ‘whose sense of the value of human life had been diminished by the war’.
Now, anyone who has attended a large demonstration on the streets of London over the past few years will recognise this language from the condemnation of their protest on the BBC News that evening and its dismissal in the national papers the following day as a small minority of far-left political agitators who, thankfully, our brave boys in the Metropolitan Police Force were able to ‘contain’. In imitation of which, the exhibition was punctuated by Daily Mail headlines exposing the blood-lust of the revolutionaries against the poor old bourgeoisie. But in case we didn’t get the message, a final wall text by the exit concluded with this statement – which, if it isn’t addressed to the worried middle-classes of Britain in 2017, I don’t know what is:
‘The Revolution has much to tell us about the relationship between the masses and the elites, the vulnerability of democratic procedures in the face of organised violence, the challenges presented to humanitarian values by civil strife and large-scale refugee crises, and the tensions between the principle of social justice and the practical difficulties of achieving it.’
The Royal Festival Hall
Then in October I went to see a screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin at the Royal Festival Hall as part of the series Voices of Revolution: Russia 1917 (12 October-20 May 2018), with a soundtrack compiled from passages from Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies by Vladimir Ashkenazy, who was conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. Before the concert the organisers screened a short film of Ashkenazy being interviewed about the reaction to Eisenstein’s film under Stalin, and he duly reported to the delighted audience that no one could voice their personal reaction in public. In case we missed the point, his words were quoted in large text on the first page of the accompanying magazine for the series:
‘Your parents, your friends, your teachers tell you little bits of things . . . until you realise that you have to always think carefully before you say or do anything; how you behave, who your friends are, what you tell them. In the end, you realise this isn’t a normal way of living; this isn’t a normal society.’
Indeed it isn’t, as anyone will be aware who is not blind to the UK laws against ‘extremism’, the unparalleled surveillance powers of the UK state over its own citizens, the growing power of the police to shut down protest, dissent and opposition, the dominance of our press and media by corporate interests and the orthodoxy of political correctness in our cultural institutions. We’ve got a while to go before we reach a society comparable to the one in which Ashkenazy grew up; yet not one word was said about the brilliance and inventiveness of Eisenstein’s film, or about the huge influence it had on Western cinema, which it had in common with so much of the art that came out of the years immediately following the 1917 Revolution. Neither was anything said about the equal brilliance of the music of Shostakovitch that Ashkenazy was about to conduct. Nor did anyone point out that Battleship Potemkin was made in 1925, only a year after Lenin’s death, when Stalin was still two years from becoming the supreme leader of the Soviet Union, and seven years before, in 1932, the Central Committee dissolved all existing literature and art groups. All we got was the standard assertion that even to contemplate the principles of communism so brilliantly expressed in Eisenstein’s film would – once again – lead straight to the gulag. Despite the apparent freedoms we all enjoy in our capitalist utopia, you’d think the ideologues of the UK state were worried that anyone in the audience might form their own interpretation of what they were about to see. In fact, Eisenstein’s depiction of working-class rebellion was judged to be such a threat to the status quo that his film was banned in the UK until 1954. And yet, 63 years later, it was the art and music of communism that was being denounced as propaganda by a cultural institution of the state, while the propaganda of capitalism was made invisible by its presentation as an evening’s entertainment . . .
The Tate Modern
Which brings us to the final large show of the year, Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture, 1905-55 (8 November-18 February 2018), which opened last month at Tate Modern. Based around David King’s huge collection of 250,000 items which the Tate bought following his death last year, the exhibition is composed from the photographs, photomontages, posters, magazines and newspapers through which the Bolsheviks propagated the guiding principles of the Soviet Union. Appropriately, it was held in the new extension to the Tate designed by architectural practice Herzog & de Meuron, and named the Blavatnik Building after the same Soviet-born oligarch who financed the exhibition at the Royal Academy donated an undisclosed sum that was breathlessly described by the Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, as ‘almost unprecedented’. And just as the Royal Academy show did, the exhibition ends with a display of police photographs of the faces of those arrested under Stalin – which are accorded here the same status as a photograph by Rodchenko within the visual culture of the Russian Revolution. One of the effects of this equivalence is to encourage the gallery visitor to view the acute angles, sharp cropping and high tonal contrasts of Constructivist photography not as formal equivalents for the dynamic movement of history through which the bourgeois subject is subsumed within and transcended by the communist collective, but as indexes of the forces of repression of the sovereign individual. A particular focus of the show, accordingly, and one widely reported in the press, was the censorship to which Soviet propaganda was subject, with historical figures like Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev deleted from the famous photograph of Lenin addressing the Red Army in Moscow’s Sverdlow Square in 1920; or the gradual reduction of Stalin’s comrades in the group photogaph taken at the Fifteenth Leningrad Regional Party Conference in 1926, as first Nicolai Komarov, then Nikolai Antipov, then Nikolai Shvernik, then Sergey Kirov fell out of favour, finally ending up, two years later, as an oil painting by Isaak Brodsky of Stalin standing alone at the table.
Of course, such manipulations of the facts have much to teach us in the era of photoshop and the internet; when Donald Trump can claim that photographs of the rather small crowds at his inauguration as US President were doctored from their suitably historic size; when footage of US police and national guard shooting at protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline is kept off Facebook; when footage of German police violently attacking protesters at the COP23 climate change summit is kept off the BBC; when footage of Spain’s Guardia Civil violently attacking Catalans trying to vote for independence is removed from social media pages; when the industrial action and riots that brought France to a standstill last year is kept off UK news reports by a football tournament; when footage of French police violently attacking the refugee camps at Calais is kept off the news; when the brutal repression of Palestinians living and dying under the Israeli occupation is kept off the news; when footage from the body cameras of UK police killing yet another black kid is not released to the public; when the UK press is banned from reporting from the frontline of wars to which the UK Parliament has committed us; when the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis starving to death in the Saudi-enforced famine to whose perpetrators we continue to sell arms is kept off the news. I could go on . . . But when such censorship and manipulation is the fabric of our daily ‘news’, what does an exhibition on Soviet propaganda have to teach us about the power of the state to recreate reality? Even the recent notion of ‘fake news’ – as if the news before now was all true – is just another excuse for further censorship.
To imagine that art, which under capitalism is supposed to occupy the ivory tower of high culture, is immune to such manipulation would be politically naïve in the extreme – as naïve as those Western Marxists who continued to believe in the Russian Revolution after the Moscow Show Trials of the mid-1930s. Just because art under capitalism has renounced any claim to play a revolutionary, emancipatory or even supporting role for the working class on which it turned its back long ago, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still play an ideological role for the middle classes that are its primary audience. And that role, as this year’s series of lavishly staged exhibitions and shows on the Russian Revolution has demonstrated, is to turn politics into art.
In a famous essay published in 1936 – two years after the Soviet Congress of Writers made Socialist Realism the official art of the Soviet Union and a year before Joseph Goebbels opened the Great German Art Exhibition in Munich – the German critic Walter Benjamin argued that the aestheticisation of politics is the precondition for the rise of fascism. As Lenin once said, fascism is what capitalism turns to when the state struggles unsuccessfully to contain its contradictions, which is what the Western democracies are struggling with right now. The United States of America has long understood the role of aesthetics in politics, which is why its Presidents are drawn from actors, clowns and game-show hosts. And with the rise of the Cult of Corbyn we’re experiencing a similar spectacularisation of politics in this country, with the chanting masses of Momentum as unreserved in their blind adulation of their Leader as the torch-lit marchers in the United States’ are of Trump – or indeed the Brownshirts were of Hitler. As Benjamin argued of the increasingly comparable situation in Europe in the 1930s:
‘Fascism attempts to organise the masses while leaving intact the property relations that the masses strive to abolish. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their rights, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression while keeping these relations unchanged. The logical outcome of fascism is the aestheticising of political life.’
From which situation Benjamin concluded in the final line of his essay: ‘Communism responds by politicising art.’
3. Anarchist Organisation
All this, however, was just a preamble to what is easily the most thoughtful, inventive and interesting marking of the Russian Revolution I’ve yet seen, Spiridonova: Armed Love, a film whose premiere I attended at Deptford Cinema on 3 November. In fact it was shown the previous week at the London Anarchist Bookfair, but anarchists being what they are, the film was screened half an hour earlier than advertised, so most of the audience missed half of it. I’m a firm believer that technical and financial limitations inspire creativity (which is why today’s big-budget films tend to be uniformly crap), and overcoming the ones in this film are a hundred inventive solutions and subtle decisions about framing, lighting, editing, script-writing, film narrative and story-telling that make this a serious piece of work. Which isn’t to say that we didn’t laugh our arses off all the way through the film, which manages to be funny, informative and passionate in equal measure – something the Carry-On up the Gulag slapstick of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, which opened on cinemas across the UK on 20 October, fails to do on all counts.
Armed Love is a Class War production, produced by Ian Bone and directed by Murray Healey, with the starring role played by Justine Fernandes, supported by a cast of Class Warriors, anarchists, a Leninist and even members of Architects for Social Housing. It was made on a budget of nothing, stole hundreds of snippets of footage from other films, nicked all the music without copyright clearance, and was shot wherever space could be occupied long enough to act out the scene – including at the Institute of Contemporary Arts during ASH’s residency there. In other words, just as Eisenstein’s films were for communism, the making of Spiridonova: Armed Love is the enactment of anarchist principles, relying on the life-long commitment of its producer to brush history against the grain, the do-it-yourself creativity and inventiveness of its director, the passion and charisma of its lead actor, and the support of a cast that – with the exception of Adam Clifford playing the saucy assassin Yakov Blumkin – has never acted before.
It’s interesting, therefore, that the subject of Murray Healey’s film, Maria Spiridonova, was not an anarchist but a leader of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. These had split from the Social Revolutionary Party to support the Bolsheviks during the October 1917 uprising against the Provisional Government under Alexander Karensky – himself a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party; but later broke with them over their decision to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. This ended the war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, but meant that Russia ceded the Baltic States to them, the South Caucasus to Turkey, and recognised the independence of Ukraine. With them went a quarter of the population and industries of the former Russian Empire, 90 per cent of its coal mines, and the payment of 6 billion marks in compensation to German business interests for their losses from the Bolsheviks’ nationalisation and confiscation of foreign property and assets. Despite this, in what I think is one of the most interesting speeches in the film for anarchists, which was delivered in April 1918 at the National Congress of the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries, Spiridonova argued that to bring about the socialisation of the land (not its nationalisation: an important distinction ignored by eulogisers of Attlee and acolytes of Corbyn) her party had to be part of a coalition government with the Bolsheviks.
As a reward for her loyalty in defending the Treaty – something the film passes over – Lenin made Spiridonova head of the Peasant Section of the Central Executive Committee. The majority of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, however, argued that they should not be entering into deals with Imperialist Germany but instead agitating for a proletarian uprising among their fellow German workers, something Lenin judged to be unrealistic at the current stage of the German military advance. The final straw for Spiridonova was Lenin’s refusal to honour his written promise to the Russian peasantry – embodied in the film by the straw-chewing Tim Chivers – to ratify the Basic Law on the Socialisation of Land, which he had signed at the 3rd Soviet Congress in January 1918. Instead of which, in the spring of 1918 the Bolsheviks began to carry out forced requisitions of grain from the peasantry to feed the starving cities. Then at the end of April 1918, with productivity waning and the Russian economy on the verge of collapse, in a speech to the Soviet Executive that has been unearthed by Ian Bone from the Collected Works and was read in the film by the Lenin scholar John Plant, Lenin declared:
‘In the history of revolutions the dictatorship of single individuals has often been the expression of the dictatorship of the revolutionary classes. Therefore, there is no inconsistency between socialist democracy and individuals taking dictatorial power over the people. It would be extremely stupid and absurdly utopian to assume that the transition from capitalism to socialism is possible without coercion and without dictatorship. So I propose state capitalism as the economic system of the soviet republic. We will impose iron discipline in the factory and the workshop, with the proletariat working under the leadership of bourgeois or paid specialists. Proletarian dictatorship, in the form of party or individual dictatorship, must be the foundation of the soviet state.’
This was the harbinger of War Communism, the economic policy that was implemented in June 1918, and which nationalised all industries under centralised management, prohibited strikes, requisitioned all agricultural surplus from the peasantry and redistributed it among the rest of the population, rationed food and other commodities and banned private enterprise. In response, at the 5th Soviet Congress in July 1918, Spiridonova denounced the Bolsheviks as having betrayed the Revolution. Then, with the Congress still in session, the leadership of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries – including Spiridonova, who in 1906 had assassinated the district security chief Luzhenovsky, for which she spent 11 years in the gulag – ordered the assassination of the German ambassador Count Wilhelm von Mirbach. The aim was to restart the war with Germany and with it the German Revolution that was then only a few months away, and which would bring down the German Emperor in November 1918. In the uprising that followed the assassination back in Russia, which caught the Bolshevik government by surprise but which the Socialist Revolutionaries failed to push to its conclusion, the Red Army was ordered in and the rebellion crushed, Spiridonova arrested, the Peasants Section of the Soviet Congress dissolved and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries suppressed. As Blumkin says to Spiridonova in the film (in a scene shot in the London Action Resource Centre): ‘Those who make half a revolution dig their own graves’. The Bolsheviks were now the only political party in government, and the foundations of totalitarianism had been laid.
In November 1918, as revolution swept through Germany and the Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht declared a socialist republic in Berlin, Spiridonova, in an open letter to Lenin written from prison in Moscow (a scene powerfully evoked in the film), accused the now one-party Bolshevik government of imposing state capitalism rather than bringing about the socialisation of industry; of turning the peasantry and proletariat against each other through the enforced requisition of grain; of reintroducing the death penalty as a tool of political terror; of entering into deals with foreign imperialists instead of fighting with their workers; and in doing so, of damaging the belief in socialism ‘to its very roots’ – an indictment that history would prove to be only too true.
Spiridonova was initially granted amnesty from imprisonment; but in January 1919 she was again arrested by the Moscow branch of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police created by Lenin in December 1917, charged with mental illness (the customary accusation against women who don’t know their allotted place within patriarchy) and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Within two months, however, with the help of her comrades, Spiridonova had escaped and now went underground in Moscow. Her health had never recovered from her imprisonment and brutalisation in Siberia, and soon after she fell ill with typhus and was arrested again. This time Spiridonova was sent to a psychiatric prison, where she was held until released in November 1921 on the condition that she cease from engaging in any form of political activity. The film ends with a lovely scene in which Spiridonova is visited while in hiding by the anarchist Emma Goldman, played by an unrecognisably demur Jane Nicholl, who in a voiceover reads from her book, My Disillusionment in Russia (1923), in which the chapter on Spiridonova ends:
‘Of all the opponents of the Bolsheviki I had met Maria Spiridonova impressed me as one of the most sincere, well-poised, and convincing. Her heroic past and her refusal to compromise her revolutionary ideas under Tsarism as well as under Bolshevism were sufficient guarantee of her revolutionary integrity.’
Despite which – or rather because of it – in 1937, during Stalin’s Great Purge, Spiridonova was arrested for the last time, charged with plotting a peasant uprising, and sentenced to 25 years in prison, where she was treated as brutally by Stalin’s guards as she had been by those of the Tzar. Finally, in September 1941, 3 months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Spiridonova was executed along with 156 other political prisoners on the direct order of Stalin.
Among the many lessons to be learned from the Russian Revolution, there is a political truth that ‘self-identifying’ anarchists – to use the politically correct nomenclature of today – appear to have forgotten. Although 3 individuals can fairly easily handle the behavior of a fourth individual who wants to exert dominance over them, that resistance becomes more difficult when 5 persons among 20 want to do the same; and when a well-organised group of 20 wants to dominate 80 disorganised people it becomes easier still for them to do so. This equation between the organised minority and the disorganised majority becomes greater and greater as the numbers in the larger group increase, so that a crowd of 1,000 people can easily be controlled by a squad of 100 cops, a mass of 10,000 by a 500 strong police force, and so on. The larger the number of the unorganised, the smaller the proportion of the organised required to control them. We should never forget that the Death Camp at Treblinka, which in 15 months killed over three-quarters of a million people, was run by no more than 20-25 members of the SS at any one time. The claim to power on the basis that ‘we are many, they are few’ is not backed up by history. From this equation of dominance comes the existence of a ruling class, where not 1 in a 100, as is constantly said, but a fraction of a percentage of the population of the UK owns its wealth and controls the disorganised masses. World-wide the proportion of rulers to ruled is many times smaller still, with it recently being revealed that just 8 men own the wealth of the poorest 50 per cent of the world’s population, 3.6 billion people.
Unless anarchism has a plan to address this equation of dominance with something more than vague references to ‘self-regulation’ that have been proved completely inadequate time and again and at every degree of disorder, those who identify as anarchists are little more than rebels within an economic system that sells rebellion for a living. That’s okay; not everyone wants to change the world – much as they say they do. But their commitment to rebellion would be more believable if they at least did what it says on their T-shirts. Nowadays, so empty has the term ‘anarchism’ become that free-market capitalists, political social-democrats and moralising liberals alike label themselves as anarchists. Anarcho-capitalism is the latest justification for letting the property developers solve the housing crisis; and just about every self-identifying anarchist I know ended up voting – and even campaigning – for the Parliamentary Labour Party in the last General Election; while anarchism as a term has become increasingly appropriated by students to describe the economic freedom to ‘be’ what they want that their education and class position grants them, while at the same time maintaining the appearance of their opposition to that position behind the facade of ‘identity’ politics.
Unfortunately, it is impossible for any discussion about the failings of anarchism in the UK to avoid the issue of identity politics and, by extension, the discourse of political correctness by which this politics has been imposed as a new orthodoxy. Perhaps the first thing to be said is that there is nothing political in identity politics, which does not seek to change the political and economic system under which we live, but only to find equality of civil rights within the systemic inequality that system produces. Identity politics is the favoured and exclusive politics of the middle classes precisely because it does nothing to disturb the position of that class within the property relations of capitalism. The struggles against discrimination based on individual identity are important for the defense of our diminishing civil rights, but they do nothing to challenge the economic system from which that discrimination derives its power over individuals. The UK state recognising Elton John as married under British Law hasn’t lessened the homelessness that disproportionately affects gay teenagers forced to leave their family home because of homophobia, who are unable to claim state support under current welfare legislation, and who cannot afford the spiralling rents resulting from the investment of international capital in UK property. The Labour Party denouncing criticisms of Hackney MP Diane Abbott as racist won’t stop the estates on which the overwhelming majority of black and ethnic minority households in her constituency live from being demolished to make way for high-value properties for capital investment. Exposing the BBC for paying its female staff on salaries over £150,000 four times less than their male counterparts won’t help the women who make up 90 per cent of the working single parents that will lose on average £800 a year from their benefits under the government’s Univeral Credit reforms. Changing legislation to ameliorate discrimination will not change the economic power our government, financial sector and culture industry exert over us. On the contrary, the more the overwhelmingly urban, middle-class advocates of identity politics have become assimilated within the consumer culture of capitalism, the less politicised they have become in their struggle for equality, and the more they have turned their backs on the economic reality of what ‘equal rights’ means under capitalism.
There is a difference between politics – identity or otherwise – and political action. While the former is confined to changing government policy within the parliamentary system while leaving the property relations those policies serve unchanged; the latter attempts to change the political, economic and social system that produces those property relations. It is because of the confusion between politics and political action that anarchism in the UK today has become the false consciousness of the disaffected youth of the middle classes, who will one day become the technocrats of capitalism, the civil servants of the state and the administrators of government, to none of which they present the tiniest threat in the present. Identity politics is implicitly resigned to the belief that the economics and politics of capitalism cannot be changed, and in that resignation struggles only to have the best seat it can buy at the unfolding spectacle. It’s indicative of how assimilated identity politics is to capitalism that under the Equality Act 2010 it is illegal to discriminate against someone based on their age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy, maternity, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation, but perfectly acceptable to do so based on their economic status. Within the supposedly immutable property relations of capitalism, ‘anarchism’, which should be opposing these relations, has instead become the hipster’s shorthand for a sort of tight-sphinctered Puritanism almost entirely taken up with the trials by social media of political correctness and the virtue signalling of identity politics, and as such is now well and truly part of the spectacle of democracy.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with the revolutionary politics of the anarchist groups that took part in the desperate struggle for survival during the Russian Revolution, and who would have rightly seen the political correctness that dominates the debates of today’s anarchists for what it is: petit-bourgeois self-indulgence at best; at worst, an instrument of suppression that is successfully introducing legislation to criminalise all and any deviations from the status quo by compelling strict adherence to its discourse. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, the semiologist Roland Barthes said:
‘Language is legislation, speech is its code. We do not see the power that is in speech because we forget that all speech is a classification, and that all classifications are oppressive. To speak, and, with even greater reason, to utter a discourse is not, as is too often repeated, to communicate; it is to subjugate. Language – the performance of a language system – is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is quite simply fascist; for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech.’
But while Barthes wanted to expose the relations of power within language, today’s students of identity politics, much like Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, employ language to legislate speech and behaviour, the Little Red Book of political correctness clasped firmly between their quivering fingers. The fact so-called anarchists see the freedom to express their individual identities being served by censoring anything that may cause them offence as zealously as the most zealous People’s Commissar for Enlightenment shows just how meaningless the term ‘anarchism’ has become in the UK in 2017. As anarchists should know better than anyone, cops use a passing member of the public’s offence to shut down demonstrations; estate-demolishing Labour councillors use their own sense of being offended to accuse protesters who disagree with them of threatening them with violence; the police force uses the likelihood of someone causing offence to issue a dispersal order banning demonstrators from public spaces on the threat of being arrested; and the government is in the process of passing laws that will criminalise any behaviour that does or may even potentially cause offence. Taking offence, like having an identity, is not a political position: it’s a legal, governmental and public order tactic for controlling how people speak, act and think. A politics based on criminalising offence, which is what political correctness has always worked towards and is now near to achieving, is working for fascism.
So what lessons does the Russian Revolution hold for anarchism in the UK 100 years later? Despite its growing subordination to identity politics and the orthodoxy of political correctness, working-class anarchists still like to talk about Kronstadt, the rebellion in the naval town 19 miles west of Petrograd in March 1921. The sailors of the Petropavlovsk and Sebastopol battleships who in October 1917 had come to the aid of the Bolsheviks taking Petrograd and trained the guns of the Aurora on the Winter Palace, supported now by soldiers and workers opposed to the continuation of the harsh economic measures of War Communism, passed a resolution to the Bolshevik government that demanded, among other things: the free re-election of the soviets, which they felt no longer expressed the wishes of the proletariat and peasantry; freedom of speech for workers, peasants, anarchists and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries; the right of assembly and to form trade unions; the liberation of all political prisoners and the independent investigation of all arrests of workers and peasants currently in prisons and concentration camps; and the abolition of political sections in both the factories and the armed forces. In response to these demands, Trotsky denounced the rebellion as the work of foreign agitators and ordered 60,000 soldiers of the Red Army – themselves under threat of being shot by Cheka forces – to take Kronstadt by force.
How many bitter insults have been exchanged since between the anarchists and the ‘Trots’! The Kronstadt Rebellion has all the qualities most admired by old-school anarchists: the working-class and popular identity of the rebels, who included armed citizens of Kronstadt; the purity of their rebellion, which sought to return the Russian Revolution to its original values; the complete failure of the rebellion, which was crushed in a mere 12 days and was followed by bloody retributions from the Bolsheviks; and the absence of wider historical context to the condemnation of its suppression, which took place in the fourth year of a 5-year Civil War in which the newly founded Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic lost up to 1.5 million casualties from attacks by 16 opposing armies drawn from 9 different countries. This above all, it seems, allows anarchism to hold Kronstadt up in the nostalgic light of yet another ‘what if?’ moment in its long and proud history of complete disasters.
There was, however, another rebellion against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, one that was carried out by revolutionaries who were self-consciously anarchist – rather than being claimed as such after the fact – and which was far more successful in bringing anarchist principles into existence and defending them, not in the brief flash of heroic defeat, but as sustained resistance to numerous attacks, and to the benefit of the people it sought to liberate from the control of a centralised state. This was the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine – sometimes called the Black Army – which for four years between 1918 and 1921, under the military leadership of the anarcho-communist Nestor Makhno, managed to create a Free Territory for approximately 7 million workers and peasants that survived successive attacks by Ukrainian nationalists, the Imperial German and Austrian occupation, the Ukrainian State dictatorship, the Russian White Army and, finally, the Russian Red Army. Having twice signed treaties of political and military alliance with the Bolshevik government and fighting alongside the Red Army against the invading White Armies, in November 1920 the Black Army was ambushed on the orders of Trotsky, who executed its commanders and crushed what remained of its forces. In 1937 Trotsky went so far as to blame the Kronstadt Rebellion on the example set by the Insurrectionary Army, which he dismissed as kulaks – wealthy peasants afraid of losing what they owned – as well as accusing Makhno of terrorism and anti-semitism.
My point in recalling the existence of the Free Territory here is that the working-class insurrection that created and defended it for four years didn’t manage to do so by being disorganised and holding the resulting disaster up as a principle, or by mistaking heroic failures for the vindication of the purity of its ideas. But as opposed to the centralised and increasingly dictatorial Bolshevik government, the Free Territory was organised around independent worker-peasant soviets and libertarian communes, and governed by congresses of elected delegates from all political parties – in other words, very much as the Russian Revolution had started out wanting to do. The economy was based on free exchange between rural and urban communities; the freedom of the press, unions and assembly were all defended; and party militias, the Cheka and any organisations that sought to impose political dictatorship were outlawed.
Makhno survived the Civil War, escaped via Romania and Berlin to Paris, and in 1926 co-drafted the Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists, in which he and other exiled anarchists reflected on their experiences during the Russian Revolution and the reasons for their defeat by the Bolsheviks. Makhno understood anarchism as collective responsibility within a federalist structure that supports individual initiatives; but to be effective, he argued, anarchist politics requires unity of theory and collective action – not, as it is in the UK today, unity on the basis of an anarchist ‘identity’, with its printed T-shirts, circled ‘A’ logo, and its ‘solidarity’ in the face of anyone and anything that threatens the homogeneity of that identity. This is the real failure of identity politics. Significantly, given the current state of anarchism in the UK, it is the apparently perennial absence of organisation within the anarchist movement that is the focus of this text, from whose introduction, since it is as topical and relevant today as it was 90 years ago, I quote here at length:
‘The contrast between the positive substance and incontestable validity of anarchist ideas and the miserable state of the anarchist movement can be explained by a number of factors, the chief one being the absence in the anarchist world of organisational principles and organisational relations.
‘In every country the anarchist movement is represented by local organisations with contradictory theory and tactics, with no forward planning or continuity in their work. They usually fold after a time, leaving little or no trace.
‘Such a condition in revolutionary anarchism, if we take it as a whole, can only be described as chronic general disorganisation. This disease of disorganisation has invaded the organism of the anarchist movement like yellow fever and has plagued it for decades.
‘There can be no doubt, however, that this disorganisation has its roots in a number of defects of theory, notably in the distorted interpretation of the principle of individuality in anarchism, that principle being too often mistaken for the absence of all accountability. Those enamoured of self-expression with an eye to personal pleasure cling stubbornly to the chaotic condition of the anarchist movement and, in defence thereof, invoke the immutable principles of anarchism.
‘Anarchism is no beautiful fantasy, no abstract notion of philosophy, but a social movement of the working masses; for that reason alone it must gather its forces into one organisation, constantly agitating, as demanded by the reality and strategy of the social class struggle.
‘It was during the Russian Revolution of 1917 that the need for a general organisation was felt most acutely, since it was during the course of that revolution that the anarchist movement displayed the greatest degree of fragmentation and confusion. The absence of a general organisation induced many anarchist militants to defect to the ranks of the Bolsheviks. It is also the reason why many other militants find themselves today in a condition of passivity that thwarts any utilisation of their often immense capacities.
‘It is high time that anarchism emerged from the swamp of disorganisation to put an end to the interminable vacillations on the most important questions of theory and tactics, and resolutely move towards its clearly understood purpose and an organised collective practice.
‘We anticipate that a great many representatives of so-called individualism and “chaotic” anarchism will attack us, foaming at the mouth and accusing us of infringing anarchist principles. Yet we know that these individualist and chaotic elements take “anarchist principles” to mean the cavalier attitude, disorderliness and irresponsibility that have inflicted all but incurable injuries upon our movement.
‘Our hopes are invested in others – in those who have remained true to anarchism, the workers, who have lived out the tragedy of the anarchist movement and who are painfully searching for a way out.’
While the world we live in is in some respects unrecognisable from that of a hundred years ago, some things, it seems, never change. One can easily imagine the barrage of insults on social media that would greet the authors of such a document today. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Makhno was subsequently accused of everything from alcoholism to the sexual abuse of women – not by Bolsheviks or French intelligence agents, but by former comrades. It’s interesting too that, 10 years apart, both this text and that by Benjamin identified the ideological role played by the ‘self-expression’ through which the capitalist subject seeks to emerge from the masses as an individual identity. But if today’s anarchists can raise themselves out of the swamp of disorganisation in which capitalism is content to see it wallow, rather than celebrating Kronstadt’s morally justified but politically naïve and militarily doomed rebellion, it is to the Ukrainian Free Territory that they should look for lessons from the Russian Revolution in how to resist the many-headed Hydra of monopoly capitalism, corporate imperialism, rising fascism and encroaching totalitarianism by which we are threatened today. Or look to the example of Maria Spiridonova, who defended the moral victories of the Russian Revolution with her life, but who understood what could be achieved through being part of a socialist government; who was against the use of the death penalty as a tool of political terror but believed in the legitimacy of a militant uprising; who wasn’t an anarchist, but who tried to hold the Russian Revolution to this side of the disappearing line in the snow between Bolshevism and totalitarianism.
The rest is history – which the downfall of Tzarism, the defeat of Hitler and the resistance to US imperialism doesn’t make any less terrible. 5 million starved to death in the famine in the Volga and Ural regions in 1921-22; the Cult of Stalin as the supreme leader of a Soviet Union of 15 republics and 150 million people from 1930; around 12 million peasants starved to death as a result of the enforced collectivisation of agriculture between 1928 and 1940, up to 5 million of them in the Ukraine famine of 1932-33; millions of Soviet citizens denounced, imprisoned, tortured or executed by the secret police agencies; 14 million people imprisoned in the Gulag labour camps between 1929 and 1953, 1.6 million of which died; the Moscow show trials and the Great Purge between 1936 and 1938 that executed around three-quarters of a million people, including most of the senior commanders in the Red Army, thousands of Soviet artists and intellectuals and almost every last Bolshevik from the October Revolution; the betrayal of the republicans fighting the Spanish Civil War; the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler and the invasion of Poland in 1939; the subsequent death of up to a million Poles at the hands of the Soviets; the annexation of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania; the ethnic deportation of 3.3 million people to Siberia and the Central Asian republics between 1941 and 1949, 40 per cent of which died from disease or malnutrition; at least 8.7 million military and 18 million civilian deaths during the Second World War; 1.5 million starved to death in the third great famine of 1946-47; the power of the Soviet Union over the Eastern Bloc; the crushing of the uprising in Hungary in 1956; the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968; the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the death of up to 2 million Afghan civilians over the next ten years; seven decades of the most powerful totalitarian state that has ever existed; and the resulting equation of communism – as Spiridonova had once predicted – with state terror.
4. Formalism in Architecture
The Narkomfin Building
So what has this all got to do with architecture? As a third-rate intellectual nation with the most de-politicised working class in Europe, the UK has spent this 100th anniversary year self-satisfyingly dumping on everything we can about the Russian Revolution, while simultaneously shutting our eyes to the extraordinary creativity to which it gave birth – however short-lived – in poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, music, theatre, textiles, graphic design, photography, photomontage, cinema and architecture, and to which only the Italian Renaissance can be compared in modern times. Writing about Le Corbusier’s famous Marseilles Housing Unit recently led me to a building which – being neither an architect nor a scholar of architecture – I’d never heard of: the apartment block for the People’s Commissariat for Finance (Narkomfin) in Moscow designed by the Constructivist architect Moisei Ginzburg and his student Ignatii Milinis. Le Corbusier took some of his most influential ideas from this building, having first drained them of much of their socialist content; but while the 1952 Marseilles Housing Unit is celebrated in hundreds of books and visited by thousands of architectural students every year, the Narkomfin building, which was completed in 1930 when most British workers were living in terraced Victorian slums, has been left to rot, squatted by Moscow’s homeless, bought up by a property speculator, and now under threat of being ‘regenerated’ as luxury apartments or a hotel in Vladimir Putin’s Brave New Russia.
It was surprising to me just how much Le Corbusier’s Housing Unit shares with the Narkomfin building: the piloti that freed up the land beneath the building; the reinforced concrete columns that freed up the facade and placement of the interior walls; the flat roof that freed up the space for recreation; the ribbon windows allowing the maximum amount of light; the modular apartments interlocking above and below the internal streets; the double-height living space; the fitted kitchens in the larger apartments; and the on-site facilities – though not the communal kitchen and dining room: dismantling the bourgeois family was a revolution too far! Le Corbusier was open about his debt, and to be fair, he had articulated some of its principles in Towards an Architecture in 1923; but Western histories of architecture have erased Ginzburg from the public’s perception as effectively as the most powerful People’s Commissar for Enlightenment. Le Corbusier put it all together on a grand scale in an accessible holiday destination this side of the Iron Curtain and finished it all off beautifully; but the most revolutionary innovations came out of the ideas of Russian Constructivism and the Organisation of Contemporary Architects that had been co-founded in 1925 by Ginzburg, who envisaged the Narkomfin building as a model of collective housing that could be applied across the Soviet Union.
This didn’t, however, mean that it was welcomed by the Soviet government – quite the opposite. By 1930 Stalin’s grip on the Politburo was almost total, and as a product of Constructivism the Narkomfin building smelled of rebellion, avant-gardism, utopian leftism and permanent revolution – all things the Russian Revolution had initially embraced but which Stalin now denounced with a single, deadly word: ‘Trotskyism’. Ginzburg called the Narkomfin building ‘transitional type’ housing. While the two-bedroom maisonettes (K-type) for families on the first and second floors were self-contained, with their own kitchen and bathrooms, the interlocking, split-level, one-bedroom apartments (F-type) over the third, fourth and fifth floors, designed for single residents and childless couples, had their own toilet and shower cubicle, but residents had to use the communal kitchen and dining room in the adjoining annexe, which is reached along an enclosed walkway from the first floor. The building was revolutionary, therefore, not only in form and structure but also in function, affecting the transition of its residents from a domestic life based around the bourgeois family to a properly collective mode of living.
This unmistakenly associated the Narkomfin building with Trotskyism. In 1923 Trotsky had published a volume of essays under the title Problems of Everyday Life: Creating the Foundations for a New Society in Revolutionary Russia, in which he wrote: ‘People cannot be made to move into new habits of life – they must grow into them gradually, as they grew into their old ways of living.’ The transition to socialism, in other words, was to be undertaken not by policies handed down by the Central Committee, but by changing the everyday habits of a Soviet citizenry that had only just emerged from a semi-feudal society. In 1927 this collection was expanded and republished as part of series called The Culture of the Transitional Period; but when, that November, Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party, his books were removed from libraries across the Soviet Union. From now on there was to be no ‘transitional period’; under comrade Stalin the Revolution was complete, and there was no need for transitional housing when every member of Soviet society was already living in a communist utopia.
In 1930, the year the Narkomfin building was completed, and a year after Trotsky was finally expelled from the Soviet Union altogether, the Organisation of Contemporary Architects was dissolved, and the building soon began to suffer. The dynamic approaches and landscaped park designed by Ginzburg were replaced by an asphalted road between formal gardens in keeping with the neo-classical aesthetics of Stalinism; the flat roof, intended as a space for exercise and sunbathing, caught the eye of the Commissar for Finance, Nikolai Milyutin, an amateur architect who had commissioned the building and now turned the intended communal facilities into a penthouse for himself; residents in the F-type apartments began installing private kitchens whose cooking facilities they attached to the gas mains; and the freed-up land between the piloti was denounced as a waste of space amid the housing shortage and filled in with more apartments (just as it is on so many UK council estates today). It’s worth noting, too, that Ginzburg later admitted that the most popular apartments among residents were a third typology, the 2-F-type, which was a more conventional design with its own bathroom and kitchen, located at either end of the third, fourth and fifth floors, and accessed by the internal stairwells.
In the 1960s the apartment building was taken over by Moscow’s housing administration, while the communal annex remained with the Soviet of People’s Commissars (SNK). Both blocks fell into disrepair, and the city’s homeless began squatting the building. The construction of the US Embassy next door in 1981 destroyed the last remnants of the park in which it had once stood. By the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the building was a mess, and only half the apartments were occupied. Exposed to the ‘freedom’ of the market, these were purchased by the remaining residents, while the rest of the building, including the basement and ground floor, stayed under the control of the city. Shortly afterwards, as the value of the land rapidly increased, a controlling interest in the apartments was purchased by the MIAN real-estate agency. This meant residents were unable to form a housing co-operative and manage the building independently of the municipal authorities. However, the agency’s plans to turn the building into a hotel met with strong opposition from both residents and admirers of the architecture. More recently the empty apartments have been leased to artists who found in the building not only cheap accommodation among Moscow’s spiralling rents, but a vestige of a time when art was in the service of the revolution, not the state. However, just as they do in the UK, the artists attracted a hipster clientelle, and a number of the apartments have been turned into commercial establishments, including a falafel shop, shisha lounge, and yoga studio.
Then last year 95 per cent of the building was purchased by Liga Prav LLC, who in a publicity gesture any of London’s Labour councils would recognise and admire, has employed the grandson of the original architect, Alexei Ginzburg, to oversee the restoration and adaptation. This year, Ginzburg Architects has published a series of architectural renderings of what the finished building will look like. The Narkomfin building is listed, which means returning it to its former, slightly shabby glory will incur considerable expense. Modern light-weight cement has been chosen to imitate the appearance of the poor quality of the materials used in the original building; the infill housing on the ground floor is to be removed, exposing the piloti; the residents’ lift – a 1950s addition to the stair-climbing original – will be replaced with a less intrusive version; even the original experimental colour schemes of the individual apartments are to be recreated; and the annexe for communal facilities is to be restored, with the glazed wall returned to its full expanse – although the kitchen, dining room, nursery, laundry and library contained in the original block will be replaced with a commercial cafe and other facilities open to the public. There is talk that one of the apartments will be turned into a museum for visitors.
The question, of course, is who will pay for all this. The restoration is being financed by Sberbank, a state-owned Russian banking and financial services company whose headquarters are in Moscow; and Liga Prav has said that the quickest return on their investment is to turn the residential block into luxury apartments for a similar demographic to that which today inhabits the Marseilles Housing Unit. But there is a possibility, too, that the building will become a hotel for the many architects and tourists who, much as they do to Le Corbusier’s building, will visit as part of what is now being marketed as the tour of ‘Constructivist Moscow’. As its name indicates, the Narkomfin building wasn’t built for the Soviet proletariat; but it was designed as a model of collective housing that was supposed to be exported across Moscow and the Soviet Union. By the time it was built, however, it was already too late.
The Politics of Formalism
Something similar is happening in the UK today, where the masterpieces of architectural modernism are caught between the bulldozers of local councils and the wallets of property developers. Park Hill estate in Sheffield, designed by Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn, evicted of its residents and left empty for 13 years, is being turned into a mixture of commercial units, artist’s studios and high-value apartments for connoisseurs of Brutalism by architectural practices Hawkins\Brown and Mikhail Riches; Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in London, evicted of tenants and installed with artists by Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association, is being gutted and renovated by Studio Egret West fit for a pied-à-terre for neighbouring Canary Wharf bankers, at whom its retro-glamour is being marketed by Hawkins\Brown; while last month it was announced that the neighbouring Robin Hood Gardens estate, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, condemned to demolition by Tower Hamlets Labour council against widespread opposition in the architectural world and set to be redeveloped by Haworth Tompkins, has had one of its apartment modules purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which will presumably one day put it on display as an example of how the working class once lived.
Yet despite this willing collusion of the architectural profession in the destruction of the legacy of their predecessors, it’s on the aesthetic judgements of Labour councillors and Conservative politicians that the modernist council estates of post-war Britain are being demolished as doomed experiments in socialism that willfuly imposed a Brutalist ‘style’ on Britain’s supposedly terrace-loving citizens. Before he was fired from the job, Michael Heseltine, the former head of the government’s Estate Regeneration National Strategy, said that the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens was justified because – as he explained in an interview with the Architects’ Journal this March – ‘I don’t like the look of it’. Looking, of course, is all he would ever have done, as I very much doubt that Lord Heseltine, despite making his early money as a London property developer, personally knows anyone who has ever lived on a council estate, or visited one without a retinue of bodyguards. But if aesthetic taste is an indicator of political change, Jeremy Corbyn and his followers should take heart, as it appears that, in a wave of nostalgia for what Labour councils are demolishing across London, the Brutalist architecture onto which several generations of politicians have displaced their fears of socialism and hatred of the working class has become the new look for the middle classes that are displacing it from our ‘regenerated’ inner cities. ‘Coming home’, as the Hawkins\Brown promotional video describes it, means evicting existing residents from their homes.
Le Corbusier drew up five points or principles of modernist architecture: pilotis bear the structural load of the building; the design of the façade is consequently freed from structural constraints; the resulting absence of supporting walls frees up the internal layout; the ribbon windows allow the maximum amount of light into the interior; and roof gardens protect the flat roof for recreational activities. But there is a sixth principle, which relates not to the form of modernist architecture but to its function: where the middle classes flock, architects follow. Like the Brutalist architecture that developed out of it, Russian Constructivism has for some time now been the hip reference for architects looking to sell their ‘revolution’ to the richest client; but in this 100th anniversary year of the Russian Revolution not a single show – to my knowledge – has looked at the enormous influence it has had on modernist architecture, or how its socialist principles have been stripped from what are now purely formal appropriations of a ‘style’.
As always, Zaha Hadid Architects has been at the forefront of this formalism, which is the defining ideology of art under late capitalism. Despite making stylistic references to it that are easily consumed by the art- and architecture-loving public, there is not the least element of Constructivism in either the MAXXI art museum in Rome (2009) or the Pierres Vives government building in Montpellier (2012) for the simple reason that Constructivism is not a style. On the contrary, Hadid’s architecture is the antithesis of the socialist principles of Constructivism. Quite apart from her willingness to work for anyone, from the President of Azerbaijan to the Saudi Royal Family, in response to criticisms of the working conditions under which her unrealised Al Wakrah football stadium in Qatar would have been built by the 1.8 million migrant workers who are kept without pay or employment rights in work camps with their passports confiscated in up to 50 degree celsius heat that Human Rights Watch has reported is killing them at a rate of one every two days and the International Trade Union Confederation has predicted will kill 7,000 construction workers on building sites in preparation for the 2022 Football World Cup, Hadid nonchalantly declared: ‘I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government should pick up. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.’
But Zaha Hadid Architects are far from alone, either in their formalist appropriations from Constructivism or in their indifference to the social content of their architecture. I’ve lost track of the number of articles I’ve read in architectural magazines that wax lyrical about the formal qualities and fetishise the materials in yet another cultural centre, museum, opera house, sports stadium, financial institute, corporate headquarters or millionaires’ pad while ignoring its social context, the structure of its financing or its ideological function, whether it’s built in Saudi Arabia or London. The high-profile campaign to save Robin Hood Gardens by the Twentieth Century Society, which was supported by both Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers, was based not on opposition to the social cleansing of its more than 700 residents from their homes but on outrage at the loss of a masterpiece of Brutalism. As with all fetishism, the obsessive focus of architectural discourse and practice on form and materiality serves to hide the all-too-human cost of its psychological, cultural and economic formation.
Last month, Moisei Ginzburg’s Dwelling: Five Years’ Work on the Problem of the Habitation – which was originally published in 1934, the same year the Soviet Congress of Writers made Socialist Realism the official art form of the Soviet Union – was published in English translation for the first time. In a review of the book in the Architectural Review, the architectural historian wrote that it is a long overdue corrective to the misunderstanding of Constructivism as a ‘style’ that still dominates our perception of the art and architecture that came out of the Russian Revolution. This was encouraged and propagated by New York’s Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, which in 1982 published what became the de facto manifesto of Constructivism for Western students of architects. This was Ginzburg’s 1924 treatise Style and Epoch, which appeared in a series with Le Corbusier’s contemporaneous Towards a New Architecture, and shared much of its stylistic theory of historical development in art and design.
35 years later, the architectural profession continues to heap accolades and awards on buildings like Herzog & de Meuron’s appropriately named Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford – another building that makes stylistic references to Constructivism, and like the Tate Modern extension is named after the Soviet-born oligarch, who donated £75 million to its construction. Its aim, according to the university’s website, is ‘to develop innovative and productive collaborations with governmental and non-governmental organisations, including private sector companies, that can help us stay connected with real-world challenges.’ The reviews of the building in the architectural press, however, ignored this nexus of private capital, public pedagogy and government policy to focus instead on the apparently fascinating fact that ‘the thick floor plates and spiral staircase that link each of the seven floors are cast from concrete, which has been mixed with warm-toned aggregate to mitigate some of the material’s typically cool hues.’ This is what architectural discourse and practice has been reduced to in this country; but we should never underestimate what political purpose is being served by this formalist conception of architecture. There is nothing so ideological as the claims of art to be ‘above’ ideology. As Richard Rogers, the former socialist turned designer of the Lloyds Building, the Millennium Dome, One Hyde Park and Neo Bankside, once said: ‘Architecture is always political’.
Architects for Social Housing