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2017, the Russian Revolution, and the idea of utopia

Billed as a year of imagination and possibility to mark the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, 2016 didn’t quite work out that way.

2017 offers another opportunity to consider the meaning and value of the idea of utopia, marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the most significant utopian enterprise since the American and French revolutions.

For most, the Soviet experiment, like 2016, will be remembered for its dystopian character: the bloody civil war that followed the Revolution; the swift suffocation of the nascent workers’ democracy by an overbearing bureaucracy; the immense suffering of forced-march collectivisation and industrialisation; the terrors of the 1930s police state; and the chronic misfiring of an economic engine that finally sputtered and died. The hulking edifice of the USSR stands as a ruined dream factory, utopia’s tombstone.

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Charlie Chaplin: hero of the Soviet avant-garde

Just as Marx praises capitalism in the most extravagant terms in The Communist Manifesto, the early Soviet avant-garde was entranced by the idea of America.

The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde by Owen Hatherley explores the Soviet intelligentia’s fascination with the America of the early 20th century, a mythic land of technological wonders, vast mechanised industries, spectacular cityscapes and the startling new medium of cinema.

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What’s so bad about being a Trotskyist?

So what exactly is so bad about being a Trotskyist?

The extent of the far left’s infiltration into Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party depends on who you ask.

For Corbyn’s opponents the presence of a virulent new revolutionary strain within the ranks seems very real. Wherever one looks, it seems, the Militant undead are rising under the cover of the membership surge to resume their abortive 1980s takeover project, lobbying aggressively to consolidate power in the hands of the party membership to enforce a form of Bolshevik ‘democratic centralism’, and employing the pro-Corbyn Momentum group – a cuckoo in the Labour nest – as their vehicle.

For Corbyn’s supporters such fears have more to do with the desire of the party’s old guard to hold on to power than the genuine threat of a leftist insurgency. They see the membership surge as the British expression of an international anti-austerity movement exemplified by new European parties such as Podemos and Syriza, Scotland’s Radical Independence Movement, and, across the Atlantic, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon.

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Mars landing

Kosmonaut Zero

Richard Evans’ science fiction novel Kosmonaut Zero is a clever commentary on the perennial human desire to transcend the limitations of the body.

The story is set in 1969, during the most intense phase of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union that ran during the decades following the Second World War. After early Soviet breakthroughs in the 1950s and early 60s, including the the first satellite, the first man in space, and the first contact with the Moon’s surface, the United States is set to finally pull ahead by putting the first man on the Moon. Kosmonaut Zero, however, suggests that while the world’s attention was focused on the Apollo 11 mission the Russians were developing a secret project to go much further by sending a cosmonaut to Mars.

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Photo with commissar profiles defaced by India ink

The Commissar Vanishes

The Commissar Vanishes, David King’s classic visual history of Stalin’s Russia, has been published in Britain for the first time.

Originally published in the US in 1997, the book documents the degeneration of the Soviet utopia into dictatorship as the Stalinist faction that emerged after Lenin’s death sought to strengthen its grip on power through the comprehensive falsification and reconstruction of the republic’s collective memory. Stalin’s objective was to eliminate political rivals not only through their physical imprisonment and execution, but also their erasure from the public record. Censors were ordered to eradicate any reference to ‘enemies of the revolution’ preserved in any image, book, journal or film.

In the years just before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union King scoured public and private archives across Russia to unearth a mass of defaced images and documents that revealed the sheer extent of the Stalinist effort to rewrite history. He uncovered the original versions of hundreds of photos that had been cropped and retouched to serve the regime’s propaganda purposes, and libraries of blacklisted books and documents that had been defaced by citizens fearful that their ownership of prescribed material might be discovered by the authorities.

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