Monday, September 4, 2017

Reading revolution

2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The precise date the Bolsheviks took power is November 7. In the lead-up to the anniversary of this glorious landmark of world history, I'm doing a little reading.
First, I'm reading The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky (which, by the way, is available in a free e-book version here). Actually I think I'm rereading it, but the truth is that I have little specific memory of most of the great Marxist works I read in my early 20s as my aging brain seems to no longer retain that kind of detail. So now, 40 years later, even if it weren't the centenary, it'd be time to read them again. Especially now. To refresh and re-arm. None of us could have predicted even a year ago the way the class struggle in this country would so swiftly and sharply re-ignite. It has, though, and is heating up daily, and as I read Trotsky's superlative, thrilling, incisive, commanding narrative I come across passage after passage that is stunningly apposite. Much as I'd like to, I don't know that I'll remember these fantastically on-target formulations (see above re aging brain), but I do believe they'll have a cumulative impact and I'll come away from this book with a deepened, renewed understanding of how revolution is accomplished.

It is a long book, and I'm reading it slowly as pretty much every sentence is a gem requiring concentration and consideration, so who knows whether I'll finish before the 100th anniversary arrives. Whenever I do, though, I'll be moving on to two others that I'm embarrassed to say I have not read before but am eager to begin.

One is The Black Jacobins by the brilliant Marxist historian CLR James, who by the way called Trotsky's book "the greatest history of an event that I know." James' book, subtitled Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, is the history of the Haitian Revolution, the world's first successful slave revolution. The other is A Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaures, of whom Trotsky said, "Every revolutionary party, every oppressed working class can claim Jaures, his memory, his example, for our own."

Meanwhile, fiction obsessive that I am, I'm also reading a novel or two here and there, most of them trending in the revolutionary direction as well. One I just finished and do, to my own surprise, recommend is The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton. This book is set in the aftermath of, the ensuing two to three years after, the unfinished Egyptian revolution of 2011, the mass uprisings centered in Cairo's Tahrir Square that were the central events of what came to be known as the Arab Spring. I nearly didn't read this one. Basically because it was so widely praised by the bourgeois literary establishment that I assumed it couldn't be any good politically. I decided to give it a try. Then I nearly stopped within the first few pages because I saw that the story (1) is not about the actual 2011 uprising as I'd mistakenly thought it would be but rather takes place in the following years, and (2) is not a narrative about or from the point of view of the oppressed masses but rather is about and from the point of view of several middle-class artsy types--filmmakers, photographers, audio engineers--who undertake to record, bear witness to, the struggle. I kept going, though, and was soon won over, in fact swept up in the narrative. What is winning about this novel? For one thing, it's honest about point of view and achieves what felt to me like real authenticity. Also, the main characters may not be starving proletarians, but they are genuine partisans of the revolutionary insurgence who've assessed that their highest contribution will be to bring the news of it to the world. They're propagandists in the best sense of the word. As such, as partisans and propagandists, they do not stand outside the course of events. They don't just tell the story, they become part of the story. They are sincere, they are dedicated, they are in the thick of it. They sacrifice. They suffer. Ultimately, as the counter-revolution (armed and funded by U.S. imperialism which I wish Hamilton had touched on a bit more) retains and tightens its grip on the state, they are defeated. But only temporarily, as Egypt and the Arab masses, above all the Palestinian nation, will rise again, and at the novel's perfect end it's clear that the surviving characters are still in the fight.

Oh, and by the way, don't hold the literary establishment's praise of this novel against it. I suspect the critics felt free to laud it because they believe the story it tells is well and buried. They're wrong. As all will see.