Social histories of 1917

Estelle Cooch, a history teacher in South London, reflects on an unusual series of history lectures that have drawn a new generation into exploring the Russian Revolution. This article was first published in the summer 2017 edition of the rs21 magazine.

“The percentage of freaks among people in general is very considerable, but it is especially high among teachers,” noted the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in his autobiography, My Life.

As a history teacher in South London I often find myself trawling through the A Level history textbook asking myself the same question. Are teachers freaks? Are we naive to attempt to broaden students understanding to topics outside of their exam? Communism, and all its distortions, remains a popular topic at A Level and it is often frustrating to read textbooks that unquestioningly perpetuate what has become known as the “continuity thesis” – the idea that there is a clear line from Lenin to the Gulag.

Fortunately, 100 years on from the events, a lecture series on the Social Histories of the Russian Revolution organised by historians and activists Brendan McGeever and Simon Pirani has brought the debate to life again. The lectures have been running since October 2016 (recordings are online), and they have aimed to progress our understanding of previously unstudied – or understudied – aspects of the Russian Revolution.

The talks have covered a range of issues from Dr Katy Turton’s fascinating exposition of the role of women in 1917 to George Gilbert’s analysis of the Russian radical right in the lead up to 1917. The lecturers present archival research, followed by discussion and debate. Indeed it is often the lectures that you think you will be least interested in that leave you itching for more.

I was surprised, for example, when my A Level students told me one of their favourite lectures was Dimitri Tolkatsch on ‘The Ukrainian Peasant Insurgency in the Revolutionary Period’, certainly not a topic that many 17 and 18 year olds would give up a Thursday evening to come and hear about. And yet, Tolkatsch’s passion for his topic was infectious and the students came away expressing an urgent desire to find their own version of the Ukrainian peasant insurgency.

Similarly Professor Chris Read’s lecture on the role of the “masses” in 1917 left much food for thought. Chris argued convincingly that the early period of the Leninist state was characterised by its desperate attempts to create the conditions that should have brought it to power but weren’t there. With the decimation of the working class during the Civil War this became increasingly difficult. In a similar vein Barbara Allen highlighted the role of key worker intellectual Alexander Shlyapnikov and his role in organising metalworkers throughout 1917. Shlyapnikov’s own rise and fall traced the path of the Russian working class, with Shlyapnikov himself eventually murdered in 1937, after bravely refusing to confess or implicate others. (A review of Barbara’s book by Ian Birchall can be read here).

Most readers of this magazine will be familiar with conventional histories of the Russian Revolution. Leon Trotsky’s epic masterpiece, The History of the Russian Revolution, Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution and Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy on Trotsky remain seminal works.

Yet many historians believed that following the opening of the archives after Gorbachev’s glasnost that histories of the revolution would improve. Largely that hasn’t been the case. If the Russian Revolution was simply defined by the source material available than most textbook interpretations should have moved to the left. In reality most post-Cold War historiography has moved rightwards – demonstrated in the dramatic shift from left to right of historians like Robert Service. Indeed many of the most rabid arguments of Cold War warriors like Richard Pipes have simply been repackaged, often with contradictory source material. There are many reasons for this: the dominance of neoliberalism after the collapse of the USSR is one; the ubiquitous impact of postmodernism on academia perhaps another. In short, when it comes to the Russian Revolution, politics matters.

Bearing this context in mind, the Social Histories lectures have been eye-opening. Unlike most left-wing meetings on the topic, the lecturers are not propagandistic, but nor do they feign neutrality. Instead what unites them is years of painstaking archival research behind the presentation. The lectures force you to re-evaluate your own assumptions about topics on which you thought you were well-versed. It is easy (and not unusual) for revolutionaries to ridicule research that does not fit their own understanding, but engagement with archival research like this is essential for anyone actually serious about moving forwards our analysis of the Russian revolution.

Fundamentally, however, there has been a more selfish reason that the lectures have become my monthly highlight – and one evening away from marking or planning lessons. Between 10 and 20 students who take A Level history at my school have attended and each time come away with a deeper sense of the debates of 1917. So inspired were the students by these lectures, that they decided to set up their own weekly History Lecture Club that aimed to do the same thing. The lectures have offered my students what school could not – the time and space to develop their own views about the revolution and its relevance to organising against the system today.

The Social Histories Lectures may not have all the answers – indeed they do not claim to. But, 100 years on from an event which remains a key reference point for revolutionaries, they are certainly asking the right questions.

The next in the series of lectures is ‘Early Soviet Society and World Revolution, 1917-27‘ by Gleb Albert on 28 September. 


There is one comment

  1. Simon Pirani

    Many thanks for this write-up. It’s great to hear that the series of talks has helped give some young people time and space to develop their own ideas! When a group of friends, including Brendan McGeever and I, thought about putting the series together, we had two aims in mind. 1. To get our historian colleagues (who don’t necessarily share our ideas about changing the world, but know so much about how people tried to change it in the revolutionary period) to share their knowledge in a non-academic discussion forum. 2. To transcend some “dialogues of the deaf” many of us have had in the past, and treat the revolution as history – OUR history, not neutral history, but history all the same. We’ve succeeded on both counts, I think, thanks not only to the speakers but also to a switched-on, thoughtful group of participants, including the students you’ve written about. More than one speaker has said afterwards e.g. “that’s the best bunch of questions I’ve ever had about my research”. Anyone in/near London who hasn’t joined us yet, please put some of the remaining dates in your diary! The recordings, of both the talks and the Q&A/discussion, may be useful further afield. Simon Pirani.

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