Recently, the British television series, Fall of Eagles, was uploaded onto Youtube. Originally aired in 1974, the 13-part series mainly dramatizes power and romantic intrigues of eastern European monarchies leading up to their collapse in the early 20th century.
Of particular interest is episode six, ‘Absolute Beginners,’ which stars Patrick Stewart as the exiled Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Ilych Lenin. True to Western liberal and anti-communist narratives, Lenin is depicted as someone who perverts the workers’ revolutionary movement to his own dictatorial ends. Despite this, the series nonetheless offers an interesting jumping-off point for discussing the actual qualities of revolutions and revolutionaries.
Some Background: Episode 5- The Last Tsar
Episode five revolves around the ascendancy of Nicolas II as Tsar of Russia. Some of the prominent features of Russian society can be gleamed from this episode. Two of the most notable features depicted are the exclusionary nature of rule and the growth of a politicized proletariat.
Nicolas is depicted as prideful, yet incompetent and insecure. When confronted with the reality of rising popular dissidence, he increases his resolve to maintain an absolute monarchy. An adviser exhorts Nicolas to offer substantive political concessions and to work with ‘moderate liberals.’ If he does not, his adviser warns, popular support will go to ‘evil’ revolutionary forces. Meanwhile, in a cutaway scene, we learn revolutionaries, Lenin and Nadezhda Krupskaya, are diligently working in secrecy to sow discontent among the masses.
These two societal conditions, exclusionary rule and a growing political culture of opposition, are described by John Foran as two primary causal factors for revolution. By inhibiting meaningful reforms and scoffing at any semblance of popular political participation, Nicolas helped create a situation in which masses of people were more receptive to radical oppositional ideologies. Meanwhile, radicals like Lenin were busy at work to create the subjective conditions- a political culture of opposition- necessary for revolution.
Revolution and Revolutionaries: Episode 6- Absolute Beginners
In episode six, set a decade after episode five, we learn that the radical movement is hardly monolithic. Rather, steep divisions exist over proper conduct and the nature of the revolutionary party itself. Lenin represents a hardline faction, the Bolsheviks, and struggles against Martov and the Menshevik trend during a dramatization of the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party. This episode, as it focuses on Lenin primarily, is of most interest to radicals today and offers the most salient lessons.
Much of this episode revolves around Lenin’s growing rift with Martov and Lenin’s behind-the-scenes maneuvers against other trends. Lenin is depicted as ruthless and cunning, yet also extreme critical of himself and his comrades and always encouraging more dedication and commitment. He is shown as personally committed to revolution and his place in it. Throughout the episode, Lenin is caricatured as a ‘party dictator.’ This liberal characterization, though presented in a clearly negative way, has its merits.
Some of the most interesting and illustrative scenes in episode six are the exchanges between Lenin and Trotsky. In their first exchange, during a friendly visit by Trotsky to Lenin’s residence in exile, Lenin asks the younger radical, Trotsky, who the struggle must be waged against. Trotsky replies that the revolutionary struggle is against ‘the state and the class interests it protects.’ Surprisingly, Lenin is insistent in disagreement. The struggle, Lenin says, is instead against ‘those forces and personalities which impede or obstruct the socialist revolution.’ Trotsky retorts that these proposals are identical. Lenin remains firm, stating they are not and that Trotsky himself must learn the difference between them. The primary battle, Lenin goes on to explain, is with ‘ourselves,’ and measures must be taken to combat obstructions to revolution within the radical movement and the party itself. Lenin sees this as a difference between seeing revolution in the abstract versus seeing the need to engage in the practical business of mobilizing the masses for revolution. This discussion sets the stage for a later scene during which Lenin and Martov argue over the role and meaning of the revolutionary party.
At the surface, the argument between Lenin and Martov seems superficial. Lenin wants a restricted membership of professional revolutionaries, while Martov desires to create a mass party that anyone can join. During a scene in which the debate comes to a head Lenin explains that there is a difference between a whole class shaped by capitalism and its communist vanguard. Capitalism, Lenin explains, weighs down entire sections of the working class with oppression and backwards ideas. It is the duty of the revolutionary party to raise the consciousness of the proletarian masses and this would be impossible, Lenin insists, without making a distinction between party members and party supporters.
While there are mitigating factors (such as those expressed by Mao’s writing on the Mass Line), ultimately Lenin is correct. Revolutions do not drop from the sky in perfect order. Rather, they are made through conscious organization and preparation of the masses. This, in and of itself, requires stable organizations capable of carrying these tasks to fruition. In the final scene of episode six, Lenin explains to Trotsky, who has sided with Martov and the Mensheviks, that a revolutionary party is not a ‘political sewing circle’ but an organization for mobilizing successful revolutionary offensives.
A number of other things stand out which are relevant to revolutionaries yet require little explanation: the existence of a security culture within revolutionary organizations; the importance of networking, intelligence, and strategy; and an orientation which defines the world through the effect it has on the revolutionary struggle for the seizure of power. Above all and despite the largely negative portrayal, Lenin is depicted as socially astute and resolute.
A World Systemic Opening: Episode 12- The Secret War
Episode 12 depicts the infamous ‘sealed-train’ which secretly carried Lenin and other radicals across German territory and into Russia following the 1917 February Revolution. Without going into commentary on the politics, struggles, and intrigue involved in the event or dramatization, the episode raises another important causal factor of revolution: a world-systemic opening.
During the February and October Revolutions, Russia was involved in an inter-imperialist war with Germany and other central European powers. The division and descent of world capitalism into war created an political opening utilized by Lenin and others to get back into Russia. Germany, because of its sharp conflict with the Russian state, granted a minor permission which ended up being decisive for Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
Under normal conditions of capitalist-peace, global capitalism is unified and capitalist states work together to cement each others’ rule. However, in some case, either because of error or internal conflict, openings are created for revolutionaries to seize power. Often minor things (a train ride for Lenin and other radicals; or a face-saving withdrawal of support of dictators in place such as Nicaragua or more recently Egypt) on the part of large powers can have larger ramifications which may objectively aid revolutionary movements.
A Final Note on Liberalism and Revolution
Patrick Stewart’s depiction of Lenin in Fall of Eagles is meant to be negative. This is mostly done through caricaturing Lenin as dictatorial, arrogant, and cunning. Few egregious distortions are made. Interestingly, this points to a certain quality of the liberal audience that the series is meant for. Liberals do not need to overly distort revolution and revolutionaries in their reactionary opposition. Rather, liberals instead oppose revolution and revolutionaries on the latter’s own merits. According to the liberal narrative, failure and ineptitude is more preferable to the meticulous professionalism required for those seeking total revolution. Self-doubt (as opposed to self-criticism), populism, subjectivism, and right opportunism become working class virtues within the liberal paradigm.
By the end of episode six, Lenin is accused by Trotsky of ruining the revolutionary party. Instead, Lenin explains to Trotsky, the revolutionary party was made. Ultimately, revolutions, if they are to be carried out successfully against the inevitability of reaction, need the sort of organizational discipline and strategic ruthlessness displayed by Lenin. Reactionaries, as Lenin persuasively explains, are not busying themselves with deliberations on idle theories and ‘model choices.’ Instead, the reactionary state is always busy mobilizing against revolution. Revolutionaries, Lenin rightly notes, must likewise be mobilizing for the development of revolutionary consciousness among the masses and organizing for the seizure of power. Without which, and as history can attest to, any possibilities for revolution will flounder and be wasted.
-Nikolai Brown is a co-editor of Anti-Imperialism.com, an organizer, and the author of the ‘Third Worldism: Marxist Critique of Imperialist Political Economy.’