From its first day, the October Revolution was a reference point for the international and internationalist labor movement as well as the socialist organizations that hadn’t surrendered in the face of the militarism and longings for conquest demonstrated by the powerful of the earth. It was also a celebrated reference point. The acts that were organized in homage to that glorious date, November 7th, are still remembered by many revolutionary fighters. Since the disintegration of the USSR, since the savage capitalist counterrevolution’s victory in the land of Gorky and Mayakovsky, even here, at this red website, forgetfulness lives, an unjust and suicidal forgetfulness. To remember this date, to speak about the meaning of that socialist revolution, we conversed with Spanish writer, scientist, translator and militant Manuel Talens.
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Not long ago you reminded me that your first novel, La parábola de Carmen la Reina, concluded with the following words:
[In Artefa, a small village on Granada’s Alpujarras, the trumpets of Apocalypse start to sound]... “María Espinosa was in the yard, tossing bird seed to the hens; she had dreamt that José Botines whispered his love to her with caressing words by candlelight, and she woke up with such high spirits that she forgot to open the window to air out the room, not realizing that the sky was covered by leaden clouds which had slowly arrived during the night; but she lifted her gaze when the snow began to dampen her silver hair, and then she saw the flash of lightning falling down on the cross of the steeple; she set off by the left side of her house for the village plaza; her eardrums exploding from the trumpet blasts; it smelled of burnt gunpowder and the flames were sparking through the church’s windows; she was already two steps from death but the thunder sounded to her ears like the beginning of a new hope; it was November 7th, 1917, and at that very same moment the liberating hordes jumped over the barricades to the sound of the seventh and last trumpet, and advanced victoriously through the opaque fog of the cannons to storm the Winter Palace.”
Now, almost one hundred years later, let me ask you precisely about that November 7th. You spoke here of a new hope, of liberating hordes. What happened on that November 7th, 1917? Why do you believe that it represented a new hope for the working class of the entire world?
Since your question mixes fiction with reality, and that is something very dear to me as a storyteller, let me first add some context to that extemporaneous quote from my novel, in order for the reader to understand what it is about. La parábola de Carmen la Reina takes place in the mountainous region of Granada’s Alpujarras, a spot in Andalucía where my mother’s family comes from, and it is about class struggle in an imaginary village, Artefa, throughout the entire 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. The meticulous coincidence of dates between the apocalyptic outcome of events in Artefa and the assault on the Winter Palace — which gave birth to the USSR — was not casual, but a rhetorical trick I used to pay homage to that fundamental historical event that was the October Revolution.
As for the date of November 7th, let me clarify that czarist Russia was guided by the old Julian calendar, which is different from the Gregorian used everywhere today. According to the pre-revolutionary calendar, the Soviets’ victory took place on October 25th, which is November 7th by the Gregorian calendar. This is the origin of the apparent contradiction of an October Revolution which is celebrated in November.
I will add that even though the newly born Soviet Union immediately adopted the Gregorian calendar, it continued to refer to its revolution as the October Revolution. Later, the unforgettable Eisenstein movie set the confusion in stone. The world today is so globalized and uniform that these discrepancies seem illogical, but in those times, not so very distant from today, contrast — not similarity between countries and cultures — was the norm. Having said that, let’s return to your question.
Plenty has been written about both November 7th, 1917 and its historical importance, and the thoughts I could now add in this interview are only the insignificant personal opinion — I’m not trying to convince anyone — of someone who always looked at those facts in a positive way. I apologize beforehand if my comments do not rise to the occasion.
The Russian Revolution was the second in history, but the first won by the proletariat, because the French Revolution was bourgeois in character and didn’t touch capitalist private property as the means of production. On the other hand, the Russian Revolution was the tangible proof needed by the earth’s damned, to be sure that Marx’s dream was not an illusion. How could it not represent the beginning of a new hope? This time, exploitative capitalism was replaced by communism, a beautiful concept in spite of all the disinformation it has suffered for more than an entire century, and it meant equality of enjoyment of earthly goods.
The fact that such a building collapsed seven decades later doesn’t make its construction less sublime. At the most it confirms for us that dreams, once fulfilled, need daily care and tenderness for a lifetime so that they are not extinguished.
So communism, that beautiful concept according to your words, would mean “equality of enjoyment of earthly goods.”
Of course, this is a basic concept of historical materialism, a natural consequence of both classless society and public ownership of the means of production. Paradise — if it exists — is here on earth and it shouldn’t be restricted only to some people, but enjoyed by all. It’s called sharing, which is alien to the nature of capitalism. The evangelical message of Christianity is exactly the same as that of communism, although it wanders away into magical thinking in order to daydream about a hypothetical egalitarian enjoyment once life has ended.
You have referred to a movie by Eisenstein. Which one?
To October, a marvelous silent film dedicated to the Petrograd proletarians. Eisenstein filmed it in 1927 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. Many of the veterans who had participated in the real struggle played themselves in the movie and this adds to its historical appeal, apart from the mastery that Eisenstein — an extraordinary film director — demonstrated in it. It is freely available through the internet, although these days fewer and fewer people appreciate cinematic language in its pure state, without any dialogue.
Unfriendly views of the Russian Revolution have suggested that in fact it was merely a sudden attack by the Bolsheviks. What do you think about this opinion?
Here we fully enter the land of propaganda, whose objective is disinformation. It is well known that any revolutionary undertaking has, clinging to it like a barnacle, the rewriting of its history by its enemies. We have very contemporary examples: Cuba has been enduring slander for fifty years now. As for Venezuela, not a single day passes without Western private mainstream media stating that anything Hugo Chávez’s government does is bad. We have to learn how to live with such a hindrance that today seems insoluble.
The suggestion of a sudden attack by the Bolsheviks doesn’t stand up to the slightest analysis; it is an insult to intelligence based upon the semantic falsehood that revolution is a messy and disorderly state, without any preconceived combat tactics, that ends up suffocating legal order as a step before chaos. With such a misleading premise it’s easy to make the sophist’s deduction that the assault on the Winter Palace — the last revolutionary skirmish, a prodigy of military tactics — was a sudden attack by several hundred intrepid Bolsheviks, who ended up fishing in a jumbled river.
This reductive thesis deliberately forgets ad infinitum the whole revolutionary process leading to the final assault, which had previously forced both the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in March and the formation of a weak provisional government of capitalist bourgeoisie. It leaves aside the fact that Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) was already under Soviet control and — above all — it ignores Lenin’s intelligence as a thinking leader when it came time to move the pieces on that chess board.
It is as if someone were to try to forget both Fidel Castro and the guerrilla warfare he designed from the Sierra Maestra, to focus instead on the battle at Santa Clara — another prodigy of military tactics — that gave the final victory to the Cuban Revolution. Who in his/her right mind would say that the latter was just a sudden attack by Che Guevara? It’s absurd, pure trickery.
You just have referred to Lenin’s intelligence. Do you believe it to be an expression of his brilliant mind? Of his audacity? Of his courage? Of his unusual political analyses? Of his heterodoxy? Was there a different Lenin before and after the Revolution?
Generally speaking, the greatest political leaders who have marked history, for good or ill — such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Hernán Cortés, or in the case we’re discussing, Lenin — are human beings with superior intelligence, practically indescribable courage and extraordinary strategic abilities.
Of course, this capacity is not a merit in itself; the merit comes when you put it to work exclusively for a noble and altruistic task as is the improvement of mankind. Lenin — and also Fidel, Ho Chi Minh or Nelson Mandela — belongs to that scarce gallery of extraordinary human beings. I believe I’ve answered the first five points of your question.
As for the last one, I think that unquestionably, there was a change from the leader who advocated revolutionary struggle to the statesman he became after seizing power. But that is normal, because the circumstances in both periods were radically different. One of the examples of this evolution was the changing role he assigned to the Party. From being at the beginning only an entity dedicated to popular education so that the masses could become the vanguard of the proletariat, it was transformed into the body in charge of power. It is a sad paradox that Stalin took advantage of this singularity to legitimate his crimes.
Popular education: “A book is your best company, instruct yourself”
(Soviet poster, toward 1919)
What was the attitude of the big powers of the day — England, France, also the US — before those new events? Did they allow the USSR to breathe free?
As expected, those countries showed total hostility. The switch from capitalism to socialism is not something that can remain unpunished by concerted nations, because it supposes the loss of a market and, at the same time, opens the possibility for other people to catch the virus of revolution. England, France, the US and also Japan, Canada, Czechoslovakia and Germany, among other countries, hurried to finance an army of nationalist, Czarist, anticommunist and conservative mercenaries in the civil war that broke out in the USSR in 1918. These mercenaries — the so-called White Russians — were the worst of the worst from Russian society, very similar to the Cuban ultra right-wingers from Miami. But the Red Army smashed them and counterrevolution failed.
Curiously enough — or maybe not so much — such a hostile attitude from nations persists today: the slightest attempt by any country or continent to substitute the rules of the game for fairer ones always brings the same answer. Latin America has a long experience with this. What is happening now in Honduras is just the latest example of a long list of counterrevolutionary interventions arranged from abroad.
Soon afterwards, in 1924, Lenin died. It has been said that he was depressed by the development of events, not only due to the difficulties of the process, but also to the attitudes of some of his comrades. Do you find it a reasonable conjecture?
I personally find it silly, one more among the many fabrications that are there to deny a fact which is unacceptable for capitalism: that Lenin was incombustible, like Mandela, like Fidel, like most probably Chávez will be. When right-wingers can’t destroy a leader, they revile him/her. It has also been said that Lenin died from syphilis. Who cares if one dies from syphilis, from a stroke or after a hip fracture? Why it is so difficult to admit that Lenin died because his time had come? It is simply ridiculous to fabricate a late mental depression in somebody who had survived jail, deportations, exile and all kinds of ups and downs without deviating from his initial task.
Anyway, I'm not trying to suggest that Lenin was insensitive to suffering. Nobody is.
Why do you believe that just a few years later the process took such an authoritarian character?
That is the most painful part of the USSR, because it invites people to think of what could have been such a great internationalist motherland if Stalin had not been around, or if both the debilitation due to World War II and the arms race that swamped the country during the Cold War had not happened. It is like imagining a different destiny for Spain if Franco had never existed. The problem is that history doesn’t allow anybody to rectify errors.
The terrible truth is that Stalin was a cancer not only for the Soviet Union, but for the very idea of communism as a horizon. And the leaders who succeeded him, except for maybe Khruschev, were Stalin’s late metastases that ended up destroying Lenin’s legacy. But communism is not that. Luckily enough, for fifty years now Cuba has been showing the beautiful and compassionate face of communism.
You have just mentioned Khruschev. How could it happen that Khruschev’s attempt at renewal, the self-criticism of Stalinism at the 20th Congress was not fruitful, or if it was, not for long?
I’m no Kremlinologist at all, so I only can interpret what I sense. I believe that the 20th Congress arrived too late. If Stalinism had been short-lived everything could have been reversed, but no revolution can stand twenty-nine years of crimes, abuses and terror, even if simultaneously it produces things worthy of praise. I consider that Khruschev was not able to completely remove the cancer of Stalinism and, as a consequence, it relapsed.
A few years ago a friend in Moscow told me a beautiful anecdote about Khruschev that I later used in a short story. Please remind me to send you the passage.
(A few days later, Manuel Talens kindly sent me both the text and the picture that I reproduce below):
[…] And that was how the following day she took me to Novodevichy cemetery. Its landscaped sidewalks were covered with snow. We wandered between tombstones and I couldn’t resist my old habit of delivering my monologues to her, this time on the important men and women who are buried there about whom I knew a thing or two. She listened to me with attention and her gaze was turning ironic. We arrived at Khruschev’s grave. Then Mei-Ling opened her mouth to tell me that the former USSR President is not buried at the Kremlin because he died while out of power. Then, for the first time since I knew her, she directed more than a hundred words in a row at me. I learned that Khruschev’s mausoleum is by Ernst Neizvestny, a sculptor Khruschev had ordered brought before him when he was the CPSU’s First Secretary, in order to violently berate him for producing art contrary to socialism’s ideals. And that the then young artist, instead of being frightened, shouted back to him that even if he was Comrade First Secretary he didn’t know anything about sculpture. Apparently, after he fell from power, Khruschev and the sculptor initiated a certain friendship, so much so, that in his last will and testament Khruschev stated that he wanted Neizvstny to sculpt the monument at his grave. On either side of the old leader’s realistic face there are two big abstract angular figures, one in white marble and the other in black. According to Mei-Ling they symbolize two ears.
“At the end of his life,” she added as a conclusion, “Khruschev had learned how to listen.” [...]
Nikita Khruschev’s grave, Novodevichy cemetery (Moscow)
It is probable that the Soviet Union disintegrated because its leaders were autistic, they didn’t listen to anybody.
But I don’t want to give the impression that everything in the USSR’s trajectory is negative for me. It will always be remembered for the help it gave to the Spanish Republic during our Civil War, the Soviet people’s heroism during World War II (both things under Stalin’s command, all must be said) and its constant and unconditional support to Cuba until the last moment.
Apart from this, during the Eighties there were several rectification attempts. First by Andropov, who was not by any means an idiot, and then by Gorbachev with his perestroika. What do you think of those attempts?
None of the leaders who succeeded Khruschev were stupid, but I suppose that none of them believed as one needs to believe — with an unyielding conviction — in the survival and legacy of the Revolution. I don’t have the least sympathy for their memory.
The last one, Gorbachev, was a kind of Soviet Adolfo Suárez suddenly catapulted by chance to an unexpected place: from being an austere servant of the apparatus he was, out of the blue, turned into a western-style frivolous democratic television figure. There is no doubt that he did what he could, he tried to open the window to let some fresh air in, but the USSR was already moribund. A cancer can’t be treated with half measures and Gorbachev had the unfortunate role of helplessly watching an agony that didn’t respond to any treatment.
There is a Jacques Brel song — “J’arrive” — that expresses the impotence Gorbachev should have felt as the situation was slipping out of his hands: C’est même pas toi qui es en avance, c’est déjà moi qui suis en retard. [It’s not even you who’s ahead, it’s me who’s behind] And the unavoidable happened: one day Yeltsin — ambitious, a liar, thief, and treacherous drunk — showed up and delivered the coup de grace.
You have already mentioned the Cold War. I’d like to go back to it. The Cold War was always very hot for the warmongering West, which wanted to drown the USSR from the first day. Didn’t it leave very little leeway for the USSR? Did the USSR have other possible paths to follow?
In cases like that of the USSR, my grandmother used to say that “all of them killed her but she died alone.” There is no doubt that the Yankees had a lot to do with that harebrained arms competition and with the stupid space race that both the US and the USSR were fighting each other over, for decades.
I can understand Washington spending enormous sums of money (that it doesn’t have) on the conquest of space, because after all it is both a colonialist and invader empire and it cares very little about its high percentage of poor citizens without medical care. But what I don’t and won’t ever understand is that the USSR could accept the challenge of throwing down the pipe billions of rubles on sputniks, space trips and other whatchamacallits, while its citizens were facing hardships in its republics. Any housewife knows about priorities and none of them would buy a Rolls Royce if her children didn’t have a glass of milk. The leaders from the Kremlin, I’m sorry to say it, opted for the Rolls Royce. Those delusions of grandeur drained resources that should have been used to improve the well-being of the Soviet people instead of being tossed away.
I don’t live in that exclusive world; what I say is only my opinion as a bystander: I ignore Moscow’s real leeway, and whether it was really necessary to engage in that arms race — a leap in the dark toward bankruptcy — instead of having just organized its defense from possible USAmerican attacks. But I think that imperial politics, even if they are imposed from abroad, should not have a place in a revolutionary State.
If we can only take the comparison so far, Cuba’s policy seems a lot more logical to me: it puts its scarce economic resources into manufacturing vaccines, training doctors and teachers and social workers which it then puts at the disposal of its fellow countries.
The USSR disintegrated in 1991. According to you, what was the most decisive element in its collapse?
To Washington’s relentless hounding, it is necessary to add Moscow’s own mistakes: the loss of ideals, the perpetuation of a Party’s bourgeoisie alienated from the daily reality of the Soviet people, the economic and moral ruin, the corruption embedded at all levels. It is our everyday bread, nothing that we don’t see in our Western two-party democracies. Spain is a good example of such a decadence.
The narrative voice of the novel of mine that you mentioned above, soon after the words that you have reproduced for this interview and just before the end, adds: “… there is no doubt that men were created to be briefly free while fighting battles and then they return to slavery after touching victory with their hands.” Who knows if that is our destiny: to try, to fail, to try again, to fail again and so forth, without ever accepting failure. I am an active pessimist, full of optimism.
To try, to fail and to try again, you’re telling me. To fight battles known to be lost in advance, to go to war, to be defeated and to go to war again. Isn’t it a little absurd? Isn’t it literarily brilliant, but politically unviable? Isn’t it a philosophy of history not only pessimistic/optimistic but, shall we say, very romantic?
I go back to Lenin: one step forward, two steps back. Pure praxis. The absurd thing would be to give up. There is nothing romantic in this way of thinking. Romanticism leaves me cold.
Putting things in perspective from our current position and keeping in mind the ten or more years of wild capitalism in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, do you believe that November 7th was worth the effort? Do you believe that the earth’s liberating movements should continue looking at that date as a reference? In short, should we continue identifying ourselves with that revolution?
Yes, it was worth the effort. The approach to evaluating historical facts should never be their success or their failure, but the goodness or wickedness of their essence. And the essence of that revolution that was fought to improve the well-being of earth’s damned — I like to quote The International — was good.
The wild capitalism in present-day Russia has created multimillionaires overnight. That is what we see in Western press headlines while the lower-case type on the inside pages shows us the other face, much more sinister: that from 1990 to 2008 Russian life expectancy — a figure that measures quality of life and summarizes mortality rate for all ages in both sexes — has fallen, from 69 to 65 years. Those 4 years of difference seem like very little, but they are the statistical expression of a human tragedy of enormous proportions.
Concerning whether we should continue identifying ourselves with the October Revolution, I don’t know what to tell you. Nostalgia displeases me, because the past was never better than the present. I prefer to coldly analyze historical facts to preserve their positive aspects, but without hiding the negative ones. As well, nowadays things are very different than in 1917 and, at least for now and under certain social circumstances, it is possible to use the electoral system of democracy as a lever to make revolution through the vote, without weapons. Of course it is much more complicated, because votes don’t allow for complete neutralization of the enemy, which remains hidden in the vicinity.
Allow me to conclude with a non-nostalgic question. How do you see 21st Century socialism? Where is it more likely to be adopted?
Also to conclude, and before giving you my point of view about 21st Century socialism, let me tell you that I have very much enjoyed discussing Marxism and the October Revolution with you, two matters so unexpected and disregarded in current public discourse. And I also like that this conversation will be published, because nowadays it looks frankly heterodox, a real virtue amid so many flat ideological EEGs [smile]. You know very well that post-modernity has wrought havoc in both the traditional left-wing parties and the political thinking of contemporary societies, and the single fact of speaking of these things sounds to many people like science fiction. What can we do?!
Let me finish: I think of 21st Century socialism as speaking Spanish, although not in Spain, but in Latin America. That’s where mankind’s future rests, if such a thing still does exist. We won’t see its culmination, but it has already started. In fact, its seeds were officially planted on January 8th, 1959, when the bearded guerrillas entered Havana. Without Cuba and its obstinate resistance over five decades, 21st Century socialism would not be possible today. Now the only thing it needs is that at least one of the three Latin American giants — México, Brazil or Argentina — find and elect a Chávez, an Evo or a Correa to suit them, so that the locomotive will get up to speed and become unstoppable. It is a question of time. That day, if I end up witnessing it, will be a happy one for me.
A dream that was not an illusion…
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, our task is to change it.”
(Karl Marx’s grave in London’s Highgate cemetery, courtesy of Patricio Suárez)