Feeling the Global and Temporal Reverberations of Revolution: The 1917/2017 Symposium

On Friday, November 3rd, the 1917-2017 Symposium commenced with its opening session, entitled First Decades, Global Reverberations. This session was moderated by Mark Steinberg (Professor of History, UIUC), and was made up of presentations by Jessica Graham (Assistant Professor of History at the University of California at San Diego), Kristin Romberg (Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History, UIUC), and Marcello Flores (Professor of History at the University of Siena and Director of the European Master in Human Rights and Genocide Studies at the University of Siena). These presentations were all tied together by Manuel Rota (Associate Professor of French and Italian, UIUC), who served as discussant.

Jessica Graham opened the first round of presentations with her work on “The Racial Reverberations of 1917: The Communist Party of Brazil’s New Antiracism and the Contest of Black Support in the 1930s.” While researching race and communism in Brazil, Graham discovered a dearth of scholarship on the topic, leading her to study black participation in communist and fascist movements in 1930s Brazil. In Brazil, both the Communist Party and the Fascist Party actively recruited Afro-Brazilians and vied for their loyalty. The Communists hoped that Afro-Brazilians would look to the USSR for inspiration and tried to tie anti-racism into a larger narrative of anti-capitalism. Similarly, the fascist movement helped to politicize racial and class identity, bringing these intersections to the fore. Through the rivalry between the left and the right, blackness was formed as an important political category, paving the way for further Afro-Brazilian political participation.

Kristin Romberg followed Graham with a discussion on “Constructivist Tectonics and the Wegernian Revolution.” She began her presentation with an examination of three important concepts: tectonics, faktura, and construction. Faktura and construction are the analytical workhouses of Constructivist scholarship, and both terms are part of a project of finding an objective way to determine form and composition outside of the individual. This project was inherently tied to a Marxist materialist praxis that would test the truth of the Constructivists’ ideology. While these two terms are certainly important, Romberg’s research focuses on the first term: tectonics, which can be defined as the ideological component of Constructivism. According to Romberg, tectonics, or tektonika, belonged to a broader social movement and took an inherently political stance. Tectonics was tied to Aleksandr Bogdanov’s tectology and Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which helped to create a low aesthetics and theory that organized knowledge from the perspective of the working-class.

Marcello Flores concluded the presentations with his research on “The Spread of the Soviet Myth in the West.” According to Flores, socialism was one of the most influential ideological and social forces at the beginning of the 20th century. The political potential of socialism came to a head in the Russian Revolution and continued through the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. Even after the Soviet Union shed its socialist trappings, it served as a reference point in the fight against capitalism and imperialism. Despite its totalitarian reality, the Soviet Union became the symbol of revolution and the surrogate of what could have been socialism.

Wrapping up the first session, Manuel Rota connected the presentations together by identifying two key concepts: mixed metaphor and myth. The myth of the revolution remained active throughout the Soviet Union’s existence—it was active in the 50s and even in 1989. According to Rota, the revolution and its myth could be better understood through a mixed metaphor. For example, in the case of Brazil, the mixed metaphor of race and class served as an opportunity to explore nuance. Through this framework of mixed metaphors, we can look beyond the failings of the Revolution, and think about it as a transition and as a site of messianic possibility.

The second session of the symposium took place as a roundtable entitled “Work, Inequality, and Protest 100 Years after 1917.” The roundtable featured a panel of UIUC professors including Erik McDuffie (Associate Professor of History, African American Studies, and Center for African Studies), Tariq Omar Ali (Assistant Professor of History), Daniel Gilbert (Assistant Professor of the Labor Education Program), and Jessica Greenberg (Associate Professor of Anthropology, LAS Global Studies, and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies). With their wide-ranging areas of expertise and perspectives, the panelists explored how the 1917 Russian Revolution influenced later questions of protest, working through important questions of today’s politics, culture, and society.

First to speak was McDuffie, who focused on Russian Revolution in light of the catastrophic crisis that we are in today — on the UIUC campus, in the state of Illinois, in United States, and globally. In his talk, entitled “From the Kingdom of Necessity to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Russian Revolution and the Politics of Possibility in the era of Trump,” he argued that the 1917 Russian Revolution, the most important event of the 20th century, directly and indirectly informs us all in one way or another. He noted that the Russian Revolution was to the 20th century what the Haitian Revolution was the to age of revolution in the 19th century — a rupture that shook the world and threatened to fundamentally transform it. Because it expressed solidarity in issues of racial difference, as well as sought equality and opportunity for women, the self-declared worker-state of the Soviet Union posed an existential threat to the world of its moment and represented a politics of possibility, in which we imagine a new order and a new way of being. In connection with the 1917 revolution, McDuffie brought to the table four contemporary (and local) events: the controversy over the Chief mascot on the UIUC campus; the looming Graduate Employees’ Organization strike; Puerto Rico and the Hurricane Maria crisis; and the ambush in Niger during which four U.S. soldiers were killed. He concluded his comments with a quote from black, feminist, queer, communist, activist, scholar Angela Davis, who said, “Freedom is a constant struggle” of imagining and forging politics of solidarity and understanding various crises through an intersectional and transnational lens — and along these lines, as McDuffie suggested, the Russian Revolution provided a framework for us to imagine a new world order. 

Next to speak was Ali, who turned the conversation remembering the Russian Revolution in South Asia and why the revolution itself has been remembered wrongly. He cited the slew of uncles, brothers, and other family members named “Lenin” and “Stalin” throughout South Asia, remarking that there are so many that there is even an annual festival where those with Russian names come together. Not only is the revolution part of the social landscape, but is also part of the physical landscape of roads and series of busts of Lenin throughout the region. Thus, Ali agrees that the Russian Revolution was very important in India, though he contends that we’ve remembered it wrongly — according to Ali, we see it as the spread of how anti-colonist national elites were inspired by Bolshevism, we see it as the spread of Bolshevik ideas through certain intellectual networks, we see it as M.N. Roy (the famous South Asian communist) arguing as Lenin. As Ali said, “In this whole memory of what the Russian Revolution, we forget revolution.” We don’t remember that moment where everything seemed possible (as McDuffie mentioned). Instead, that revolutionary aspect is lost when reduce it to the circulation of ideas and their elite networks. 

The next speaker was Gilbert, who focused his comments on the history of public sector unions and other government employees — what he called the heart and soul of labor movements. As he said, recent years have seen a growing attack on the legitimacy of public employees unions and the Midwest has been a “ground zero” for the assault on union rights for these employees. He cited the example of the case Mark Janus v. AFSCME, in which Janus claims that the union violates his first amendment rights because he must pay dues to an organization which engages in political speech. According to Gilbert, given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, it is likely they will rule in Janus’ favor, “a prospect that threatens to undermine public sector unions all over the country.” He connected this to the 1917 Russian Revolution by explaining that the years after the Revolution were marked by a similar assault on workers’ unions, after a doubling of union density between 1910 and 1920. He zeroed in on the infamous 1919 Boston police strike. The Boston police strike, which is often remembered as the launchpad for Calvin Coolidge’s political career, actually launched the debate over public sector unionizing, a debate that continues 50 years later.

Greenberg was the last to speak and she began by asking: When is justice done? As she explained, this is a question that she and her students had been reflecting upon in the class that she co-teaches with Mark Steinberg (History) called “History Now!” Her students’ questions led her to think critically about “injustice” versus “justice” and the semiotic tools for naming injustice, an often affectively-charged, shared experience of mutual recognition. As Greenberg notes, the students seem to lack a clear framework for identifying when justice is “done” and often want to think of revolutions within the binary of “failed” or “successful.” She argues that justice is fixed in a time and place, but always remains unfinished, as action does not equate to justice. She continued by suggesting that we combat the anxiety of the “unfinalizability” of justice with judicial action. As Greenberg points out, law feels like action. She explains that rights must be grounded somewhere in order to achieve “finalizability,” thus the perceived need to judicialize justice. As laws pass, we feel that things are getting done, yet, often, nothing really has changed. She noted — it seems that the opposite of injustice is not justice, but despair. She asked, “How do we create critical and activist semiotics of justice that let us to experience the possibility of incremental hope?”

Lucy Pakhnyuk is a second-year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests are in comparative politics, including issues of democratization, mass mobilization/political protest, and human rights in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia.

Nadia Hoppe is a PhD student in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Her research interests include Soviet and Post-Soviet literature, art, and film, with particular focus in gender and critical theory. 


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