The 1971 centennial of the Paris Commune was celebrated with a huge demonstration. About 30,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Paris, waving red flags and singing “The Internationale”. They were commemorating the working men and women who had tried to “storm heaven” a hundred years earlier, seizing power in the French capital for two glorious months of proletarian democracy. Back then, revolution was back in the air.
And now? What did Berliners do on November 7, the 100th anniversary of Russia’s “October Revolution” (so named because Russia had a different calendar back then, 13 days behind the modern one)? Well, we saw an exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum which features Lenin with Mickey Mouse. And a play at the Schaubühne from Milo Rau in which a female Lenin gets stripped naked. We can also watch some old Soviet movies at the Babylon cinema, or look at modern Israeli art at Bethanien. There is some interesting art here – but revolution? Not really.
Did the uprising in faraway Petrograd have any effect in Berlin? At first, the revolution only appeared to strengthen the hand of German militarism. The new Soviet government made good on its promise to end the First World War immediately. Russian soldiers dropped their weapons and began the trek home. But the war wasn’t over: The Kaiser’s troops used the opportunity to advance, quickly occupying the Ukraine, the Baltic states, Finland, etc.
However, the sparks of revolution spread quickly through the German empire. By January of 1918, hundreds of thousands of Berlin workers went on a week-long strike for an end to the war. On November 4, the sailors of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven raised the red flag and began a mutiny. Five days later, the uprising had reached Berlin. Workers filled the streets, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the “Free Socialist Republic”, and the Kaiser fled.
The German revolution won us rights that we still enjoy today: things like the eight-hour workday, the right to vote for women, school education for everyone, an end to the monarchy and workers’ councils in companies (Betriebsräte).
Still: the Soviet Union was eventually replaced by Putin’s kleptocracy, and the German Democratic Republic was annexed by the West. Is the whole idea of socialism still relevant?
We discussed this question at a seminar at the Free University of Berlin yesterday. The topic was the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution – but all I could think about was climate change. Does that seem like a bit of a stretch? Let me explain.
This weekend was a radical environmental protest called Ende Gelände. 4500 activists stormed a lignite coal strip mine close to Bonn. They were demanding an end to coal plants, which account for almost half of Germany’s electricity and release huge amounts of CO2. The police evicted them and the mining resumed.
On Monday, the 23rd Climate Conference also began in Bonn. The situation is awful. Science shows indisputably that our current economic model will lead global temperatures to rise more than two degrees Celsius. That will lead to the collapse of human civilization – literally.
The German government, like governments around the world, insists on sticking to coal plants and gasoline-powered cars for at least the next couple of decades. We know exactly what is necessary to stop climate change – but it feels like we can’t, because “the economy” won’t allow it. But why can’t we as a species control our own economy?
Leon Trotsky, a leader of the October Revolution, had some thoughts on this subject. For him, the whole point of socialism was to subject the economy to human reason. On the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution (i.e. 85 years ago), Trotsky said:
“Man ceased to be a slave to nature to become a slave to the machine, and, still worse, a slave to supply and demand. The present world crisis testifies in especially tragic fashion how man, who dives to the bottom of the ocean, who rise up to the stratosphere, who converses on invisible waves from the Antipodes, how this proud and daring ruler of nature remains a slave to the blind forces of his own economy. The historical task of our epoch consists in replacing the uncontrolled play of the market by reasonable planning, in disciplining the forces of production, compelling them to work together in harmony and obediently serve the needs of mankind.”
Scientists have known about greenhouse gases for almost 200 years. Still, global warming wasn’t a big topic back in 1917. Trotsky never mentioned it, to my knowledge. Nonetheless, the October Revolution provides a framework for dealing with the greatest challenge human civilization has ever faced. On the 100th anniversary, we should have a party. But we need to start thinking about new revolutions too.