It’s hard to talk long about revolution or revolutions without looking back towards examples throughout history. While in theory, it’s easy to get lost in the seemingly endless possibilities of total social transformations, things aren’t always so rosy in practice. Some of the darkest chapters in recent history began with the fall of regimes, and it wouldn’t be terribly honest to discuss the subject without mentioning them.

During the 20th century, two revolutions stood out – China and Russia. Both countries were enormous but corrupt and incredibly poor, and in both cases revolution brought rapid development and a relatively short trip to worldwide “superpower” status. At the same time, both suffered tens of millions of deaths (mostly through famine) and incredibly brutal repression as their new rulers sought to impose ‘Communist” economies. Today, Russia’s attempts at socialism have collapsed, leaving the nation in ruin, an impoverished and corrupt shadow of its former Imperial glory. China, on the other had, has spent the last decade rapidly outgrowing every other commercial economy on the planet, though (arguably) now socialist in name only.

There is, of course, no documentary or lecture which can do this topic justice, and neither this blog nor the fictional avatar who authors it endorse any particular interpretation of these events. Decades of Cold War propaganda have left these subjects incredibly polarized between valorization and villainization, bringing out no end of spurious logic and disinformation from both sides. It’s hard to imagine that either nation would have been better off without a revolution of some sort, but it’s also hard to deny that both fell far short of their potential to really liberate society.

Whatever your personal view, it’s important to learn from these events, not just endlessly regurgitate the same tired myths.

These two features offer a glimpse of revolution from the anarchist perspective, something that’s usually left out of these stories. It shows that the range of ideas in these uprisings went well beyond the capitalist/communist rivalries we hear about nowadays, and most importantly avoids taking one ‘side’ or the other.

In the first, a (Discovery Channel) documentary, the history of the Russian Revolution is explored with a particular focus on the sailors from Kronstadt, a naval base outside the (then) capital of Petrograd (St Petersburg). These soldiers, literate and self-educated (largely anarchists), had fought hard against the Czar, but had no love for Lenin’s bureaucratic ambitions. As the Bolshiveks consolidated power, they attempted one of the era’s best-known uprisings, only brutally crushed by the Red Army. Of the two, this one is more ‘watchable’, and though it doesn’t go into the most depth, it’s a good introduction to the subject.

The Russian Revolution

In tonight’s second feature, a lecture, Andrew Flood of Ireland’s Worker Solidarity Movement (also a founding member of Ontario’s Common Cause) discusses the Chinese Revolution from an anarchist perspective. What makes this viewpoint so important (and interesting) is that anarchism as a movement and ideology had spread to China a decade or so before communism – even Mao (allegedly) originally identified as an anarchist. Unlike the first, Andrew’s talk contains no dramatic reenactments and may be a little dry for the tastes of some, but anarcho-geeks should be happy, as it goes into a lot more detail.

The Chinese Revolution – Andrew Flood (2008)