By Mark Steven
October 2017. One hundred years since the Russian Revolution. This profoundly universalist event transformed global politics, it recast the twentieth century as a battle for real emancipation, and it did so with a frontal assault on capitalism and its various mainstays. Indeed, the Russian Revolution was an unprecedented moment during which the working class of the world seized from our enemies the fortress of a superannuated absolutism and in its place established a new center for the communist international.
For this writer, 1917 is shorthand for a political sequence that is both epochal and inspiring. An historical fact but also a source of hope. Not only did Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks inaugurate the revolutionary socialist state; in building and defending that state they also invalidated the iron law of capitalist realism, showing us that horizons are there to be crossed, that our enemies can be vanquished, and that an economy based on collective property can work, all of which supplies us with the categorical lesson: Things Can Be Different. Say what we must of revolution’s changing methods between then and now – in particular, of the state and the party – 1917 remains cause for affirmation, and a catalyst for political invention.
In a recent book on 1917, China Miéville reminds us that the revolution’s legacy is still up for grabs: “This was Russia’s revolution, certainly, but it belonged and belongs to others, too. It could be ours. If its sentences are still unfinished, it is up to us to finish them.” For the duration of this month, I’m going to take Miéville’s words as a geographically specific challenge and use them to think publically about some of the ways that this event might belong to Australia. Specifically, my plan is to write weekly posts on a handful of the (probably oblique but potentially fascinating!) intersections between Australia, Australian literature, and the history of international communism. Looking back to Russia in 1917, from the standpoint of Australia in 2017, my aim is to show how some of its sentences are perfectly contiguous with some of ours.
There are, of course, material connections worth pursuing. On the eighth of November, 1917, the report went up in Australian broadsheets. “As a result of the conflict between the Russian Government and the Soviet Revolutionary Committee regarding the control of the Petrograd military headquarters it reports that the Soviet Committee has proclaimed itself a new Provisional Government.” As with elsewhere around the globe, news of the event forced a schism in public and political discourse. There was mass support for the workers’ republic. “From the canefields of North Queensland to the timber mills of Victoria came examples of workers downing tools to celebrate the event,” wrote Edgar Ross, and so too was support throughout the militant unions and labor councils in cities everywhere. Reaction answered not only with slanderous misinformation but also with military suppression both at home and abroad. Processions marching under red banners faced off against the police and infantrymen. A detachment of the 1st AIF fought alongside the Whites in Central Asia and the Russian North. The Australian government refused to acknowledge a Bolshevik Consul. And all of this, we are going to see, was transformatively imbricated with Australian literature.
It probably goes without saying here that this relationship runs both ways, however disproportionately, and I will want to make an argument (perversely, of course!) that just as 1917 is important to Australia, Australia was important to 1917. Its agents and actors always kept one eye trained on the antipodes. For instance, in 1913 a figure no less monumental than Lenin himself queried the “strange and incorrect” nomenclature used by political parties in Australia, and did so with a diagnosis that makes as much sense today as it did back then: “The Australian Labour Party does not even claim to be a Socialist Party. As a matter of fact it is a liberal-bourgeois party, and the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives.” This, the role of Australia within an international discourse of revolution, also has its literary cognates.
Before any of that, and by way of introduction, I want to round off this first post by naming (and paying tribute to) some of the specters that haunt my thinking on these things. As a working-class kid from a small town on the Central Coast around two hours north of Sydney – namely, the bombastic-sounding-but-actually-a-swamp Empire Bay – there’s not much that pointed me in the direction life has since taken either intellectually or politically. There were few exposures to literature, fewer still to Leftist politics. Before adulthood my friends were apolitical at best and xenophobic at worst. My upbringing was far from radical – not conservative in the way that some grow up surrounded by libertarian bullshit, but instead circumscribed with a more basic inability to think beyond a set of narrowly defined interests. Then, by happy accident, I made it to university, moved to Sydney, and found myself in a place that hosted both literature and politics.
While the former came to me from taking classes, having access to a university library, and trying to impress older, bookish friends, the latter I encountered in the socialist groups on campus and from listening to talks delivered by the local old guard: Frank Stillwell and Humphrey McQueen were always great for this kind of thing. If, however, there is one figure that unites literature and the Left in a personally meaningful way, and in a way that is by no means isolated to me, then that figure has to be the old bookseller nearest my university: Bob Gould. As far as I know, Gould had forever been an activist and an agitator. Every Leftist in Sydney has stories about him – most of them affectionate, irrespective of political differences, and just about all of them feature some variation on descriptors like “cantankerous” and “curmudgeonly.” I only met Gould as a bookseller, when he was holed up in his cavernous warehouse on the north end of King Street, surrounded by wobbly towers of printed words and the miasma of decaying paper, beneath a massive Diego Rivera reprint. For reasons both nostalgic and acquisitive, this bookstore – its official title is Gould’s Book Arcade – remains one of my favorite places in all of Sydney, even though in recent years its collection has become more navigable and therefore less of a mystery.
It was Gould who sold me my first copies of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, Lenin’s State and Revolution, and that red-and-gold copy of the Marx-Engels Reader everyone seems to own. What I didn’t know then, a little over a decade ago, and only learned after his death in 2011 is that Gould was seriously enthusiastic about 1917 and all that it entailed. On this, then, he gets the final words of this first entry. “I’m obsessed,” he once wrote, “with the scope and significance of Lenin’s political contribution. Lenin gets a consistently bad press from the ruling class and most of the liberal intelligentsia, but he appears to me to be absolutely central, and his contribution to revolutionary thought and practice, overwhelmingly positive.”