Podcast: Sergei Eisenstein’s October and the Bolshevik Revolution
AgitProp is a podcast discussing Marxist approaches to art and culture. The show is written and performed by James Bell. In celebration of the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution, this episode looks at a masterpiece of Soviet cinéma — Sergei Eisenstein’s October — in detail. We’ll take a look at the history portrayed by Eisenstein, alongside the film’s context and its artistic technique.
If you would like to support this work, please donate here. I presently do not have an income and anything you can contribute would mean the world to me, no matter how small. You can also follow me on Twitter for more regular updates.
Part one: From February to October [00:01:30]
Part two: The October controversy [00:49:27]
Part three: Eisenstein’s technique [01:02:31]
Part four: Approaching Eisenstein’s dialectic [01:13:21]
Part five: Marxism as Art [01:21:25]
Sub-sections within part one
[i] February [00:03:55]
[ii] Dual power [00:11:21]
[iii] April Theses [00:17:10]
[iv] July [00:24:29]
[v] Counter-revolution [00:33:11]
[vi] October [00:41:15]
[Square brackets indicate timestamps within the recording. The format used is hh:mm:ss.]
Sources and further reading
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, 1917–2017: The Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution (archive).
Trevor Rayne, First World War — Ominous portents for today.
Trevor Rayne, Taking the side of socialism.
V. I. Lenin, Letters from Afar.
V. I. Lenin, April Theses.
Patrick Newman, Factory, Land, and Nation.
Bernd Reinhardt, Sergei Eisenstein’s October: a monumental work.
Anna Chen, In Perspective: Sergei Eisenstein.
Writers Without Money, October (1928).
Fidel Castro, Blaming Stalin for everything would be historical simplism.
Hermilo Jiminez, Sergei Eisenstein: My Art in Life.
Murray Sperber, Eisenstein’s October.
Trevor Rayne, Dialectical materialism.
V.I. Lenin, On the Question of Dialectics.
Although the text is not free, I highly recommend the collection The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents (1896–1939) for comrades wishing to gain a greater understanding of Eisenstein’s theoretical contributions and the reaction to October in Soviet society.
A Montage on Bread is intended as an appendix to this episode. It is an artistic experiment, attempting to translate Sergei Eisenstein’s dialectical film form to the medium of poetry. Its topic is the February revolution of 1917.
Episode one: US horror film and the capitalist crisis (1974–1985)
Episode two: Sergei Eisenstein’s October and the Bolshevik Revolution
Episode three: Propaganda, the state and Comrade Detective
Episode four: Digital monsters: Black Mirror in historical perspective
Episode five: Netflix, subscription fees and the future of streaming
Episode six: Review round-up
Episode seven: Cuba’s artistic revolution
Welcome to AgitProp. I’m James Bell and today I’ll be discussing Sergei Eisenstein’s film October and the Bolshevik revolution. The intent of this episode is to provide an introduction to Eisenstein’s film, equipping the listener with enough knowledge of the history the film describes, the context it was produced in and its technique to allow an appreciation of it. I have provided a link to the work in the description.
Before we get started, I want to spare a minute thanking you all for your responses to the last episode. When I began this, I honestly didn’t expect much of an uptake for it. Yet, over the last few weeks you’ve proven me wrong. The response to episode one has been overwhelmingly positive and the generosity you’ve all shown me with your willingness to promote the show is truly appreciated.
Alongside this, I’ve received a number of comments on everything from the content covered in episode one to my audio quality. Your opinions are invaluable and I intend to show you that I’m taking them on board. As we move forward, I hope only that we can keep the conversation going. Don’t hesitate to contact me on Twitter, email me or comment here. I will read and respond to everything.
A brief word on funding. If you can afford to donate to the show, there’s a link provided in the description. Any money that you send me will be split equally between myself and Alex, who helps me with recording. We really appreciate anything you can send, no matter how small that is.
Part one: From February to October
One hundred years ago, the Bolshevik revolution seized power in Russia. Today, it is perhaps difficult to appreciate how significant a historical moment this was. Socialism rose from the bloody ruins of the first World War, demonstrating to all that a better world was possible. More than this, the triumph of Bolshevism in 1917 showed that even a feudal society could undergo socialist revolution and that capitalism was no longer an historical necessity. The future was brighter than it had ever been.
It is this moment that the Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein depicts in his famous film, October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Released in 1928 — when the revolution was close in the living memory of its audience — the film is bristling with this history. As such, I think it only fitting to start with an outline of the period covered by Eisenstein — that is, the period between the February and October revolutions. Without this, the work is rendered an unsolvable riddle. In addition to the history here, I have provided more detailed historical resources on the revolution in the description. The dates used throughout this section use the old Russian calendar, which is 13 days behind modern calendars. For those of you with an understanding of the period, feel free to skip ahead to part two.
If you’re looking for a broader historical analysis of the Soviet Union, I’m afraid you will be largely disappointed. The second and fifth parts of this episode discuss some aspects of broader Soviet history as is necessary for my analysis of Eisenstein’s work. Beyond this, I have recommend some sources. My analysis will remain rooted in 1917 and the film’s production. We have a hell of a lot to cover so let’s get started.
The fundamental political question that led to both the February and October revolutions was the first imperialist World War, which began in 1914. In total, the war claimed the lives of nearly ten million combatants. A further twenty one million were wounded and eight million went missing. In Russia, the weakest of the nations engaged in combat, the war made its presence known in every aspect of social life.
Firstly, the fifteen point five million strong Russian army was both poorly equipped and scorned. There are numerous examples we can give: for most of 1915 the army had only 3% of the shells needed for heavy battle conditions; an entire army of one hundred and fourty thousand men was sent into battle without rifles; in winter, the 7th Army infantry was forced to march barefoot. Aside from these appalling conditions, officers routinely denigrated and whipped their subordinates — many of them conscripts. Even off the battlefield, soldiers could find no comfort. They were banned from visiting theatres and restaurants, riding inside tramcars or even entering public parks. Having risked their lives for the Tsar, the Russian army was greeted everywhere by signs bearing the insignia ‘Dogs and soldiers forbidden to enter’.
The grim conditions at the front were matched by the conditions facing workers in ordinary life. The stark reality of class in Russian society could not be avoided. Petrograd — then the economic and political capital of Russia — serves as the perfect microcosm to explain this. Whilst the Tsarist aristocracy and Russian bourgeoisie lounged in an elegant city, the poor lived and died in wooden shacks without streetlamps, water or transport. The two districts were separated by the river Neva (also referred to as the Nevskii) and the bridges between them could be raised at any time. By the summer of 1915, the food supply was dwindling, a problem which deepened significantly in the first two months of 1917. If lucky, a worker could expect to live off the equivalent of one small loaf of sliced bread a day and, in order to procure this, they would need to queue all night, with some lines being four men deep and one mile long. In many cases, even this paltry amount did not appear.
Despite these appalling conditions, the Tsarist monarchy was able to maintain its involvement in the war through a combination of political collaboration and intensive repression. Only the Bolshevik Party consistently opposed the war and denounced its character as imperialist. They were, however, severely limited. Between 1914 and 1916, 17% of pre-war industrial workers were conscripted into the army. This included six thousand strike leaders, removing the most experienced class fighters of the industrial workers. The Bolsheviks bore considerable repression in their absence. Their leadership was in exile for the whole war and, as conditions worsened, they came under increasing attack. In six separate police raids over December 1916, almost all of the Bolshevik Petrograd Committee was arrested and their printing press confiscated. Even in the face of this, the Bolsheviks pressed on, agitating in both the factories and the army.
What resistance there was to Tsarism prior to the February revolution was disorganised and isolated. Toward the end of 1916 there were a series of attacks on food stores, led by women and the young, but this had no organised form. The most significant resistance was a strike in Petrograd on 9 January 1917, involving around 40% of the capital’s workers. Even this, however, did not prove strong enough to mount a demonstration. Although these efforts were weak, they did indicate that something larger was possible. The Tsar’s forces prepared accordingly. In mid-January, the military commander of Petrograd — Khabalov — prepared a plan to crush any uprising. Three lines of defence were formed. The first consisted of three thousand five hundred police, the second three thousand two hundred cossacks and the third one hundred and eighty thousand reserve soldiers. An additional two hundred and eighty thousand troops were available within a thirty mile radius of the city. The cossacks in particular were assumed to be loyal, occupying a privileged position in the army with the promise of land at the end of the war to vouchsafe their service.
On 23 February, the tensions that had built up in the capital began to erupt. Women workers in the textile industry, who earned only half the wages of metal workers, downed their tools and marched to neighbouring factories shouting simply ‘Bread!’ The strike was contained mainly to workers of the Vyborg District, but included 61% of the workforce there. What made this strike significant was that it was able to mount a demonstration on the Nevskii. This uprising is the origin of the modern international women’s day. The February revolution grew from the heroism demonstrated by these women.
Under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, these strikes and demonstrations grew over the next two days. Significantly, the cossacks loyalty was wavering at this point. In response to demonstrations on 24 February the cossacks broke discipline, refusing to disperse the crowd. This led to the largest demonstration on the Nevskii since 1905, consisting of around thirty six thousand and eight hundred people. The next day — 25 February — saw the demonstrations grow into a general strike, involving 85% of the Petrograd workforce. For the first time, the workers began to put forward political demands, chanting ‘Down with the autocracy!’ and ‘Down with the war!’ This was not to be tolerated and, on 26 February, Khabalov issued an order for soldiers to fire upon demonstrating workers. 40 people were killed and the day became known as Bloody Sunday. Everything now depended on the army. If they did not support the workers, the revolution would have been crushed.
The Volynskii Regiment took the decisive action. During the morning parade on 27 Februrary, they mutinied and killed their commander. By the end of the day they had sixty six thousand and seven hundred troops at their side. Those regiments led by the Bolsheviks took the most political actions — freeing political prisoners, burning down courts and destroying police stations. After two days almost all of the soldiers in Petrograd had come over the revolution. The Tsar was unable to rally any soldiers in Russia to crush the rebellion and, five days later, he abdicated. The three hundred and four year old Romanov Dynasty was overthrown.
[ii] Dual power
The February revolution did not result in a socialist state, but a situation of dual power. In the absence of Tsarism, class antagonisms that had previously been hidden came to the fore. As Lenin famously wrote, the February revolution was but ‘the first phase of the revolution’. The struggle for socialism in Russia was just beginning.
Formal power lay with the Provisional Government, which had grown out of the only representative body in Tsarist Russia — the Duma. On 26 February the Tsar dispersed the Duma, certain that the revolutionary movement would be quelled. As it became clear that this was not the case, the deputies that had been dispersed formed a Provisional Committee. The Committee consisted entirely of bourgeois representatives and right-wing Mensheviks. On 2 March, the Provisional Committee attempted to make a deal with the Tsar: he should abdicate and hand power to Grand Duke Mikhail. This fell flat. Not only did the workers arrest and threaten the Provisional Committee’s envoy when he read out this declaration, but Mikhail refused the position, preferring his head to the crown. As such, the Provisional Government was formed on 3 March with great reluctance. All the important posts were filled by representatives of the capitalist class. Only one quote-unquote “socialist” — Kerensky — was granted a minor post.
During the failed 1905 revolution, the workers developed their own instruments of power: the Soviets. Soviets were essentially worker’s councils and the idea was quickly revived during the February revolution. They organised the distribution of food in Petrograd, managed communications and withheld financial resources from the old regime. Crucially, they had the support of the army. On 1 March, the Petrograd Soviet issued Order №1. Every unit was to report to the Soviet, where they would elect their own military committees. Soldiers were granted the same rights as other citizens, with officers now forbidden from humiliating or striking them.
As the Soviet had control of the army, it seems fair to ask why it did not disperse the Provisional Government and assume power immediately. The answer to this question relies on an understanding of the three dominant political parties within the Petrograd Soviet: the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. The workers and peasants had no time for the conservative bourgeois parties, rendering them irrelevant. The fundamental struggle of the Russian revolution occurred within the workers’ movement.
Formed in 1906, the Socialist Revolutionaries held the largest number of delegates within the Petrograd Soviet of any party — four hundred of two thousand five hundred. In the capital they drew their support from two main sources: the soldiers, who mostly consisted of the peasantry, and the petty bourgeoisie — that is, professional people, white collar workers and small traders. This latter group joined the Socialist Revolutionaries in droves, the richer amongst them doing so because their former party — the Kadets — was too conservative to hold any influence in the Soviet. Politically, the Socialist Revolutionaries were neither socialist nor revolutionary. They did not believe that the socialisation of production was possible in Russia but that a period of capitalist growth was necessary in order to make this possible. They did not desire to overthrow the capitalist class and, as such, supported the Provisional Government.
Both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks originated from the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, formed in 1898. They split in 1903 at the Party’s first congress. The Mensheviks argued for a loose model of organisation in contrast to the Bolshevik Party’s model of counting only disciplined revolutionaries as members. This organisational distinction expressed two, very different, political positions. Like the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks did not believe that socialism was yet possible in Russia. As a consequence, they saw the role of the working class as supporting the bourgeoisie in establishing a capitalist republic, with the question of socialist revolution put off into the distant future. Drawing their support from workers with reactionary political positions and the labour aristocracy, the Mensheviks commanded the second largest number of votes in the Petrograd Soviet. Naturally, they supported the Provisional Government.
Only the Bolsheviks initially upheld a revolutionary position, describing the Provisional Government as ‘a government of capitalists and landowners’ in an issue of their newspaper, Pravda (‘Truth’), published on 5 March. They argued that a revolutionary alliance of workers and peasants could bring about socialism, seeing that the bourgeoisie could not establish capitalism in Russia in the face of such opposition. However, they commanded an insignificant number of votes within the Petrograd Soviet. The opportunist Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were able to secure control of the Soviet and offer its support to the Provisional Government. In addition to this, only in Petrograd was there an active revolutionary movement — the Tsarist regime simply stepping aside elsewhere. After February, the struggle was rooted in the political climate of Petrograd. This stands to explain how dual power was maintained.
[iii] April Theses
The political consequences of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks’ betrayal were enormous. Whilst many historians emphasise the early decrees passed by the Provisional Government in an attempt to paint it as both radical and democratic, in reality these policies were merely confirmations of steps already taken by the workers. So, for example, when the Provisional Government granted complete amnesty to all political prisoners, it was doing so after these prisoners had already been set free. The fundamental issues confronting the Russian working class and peasantry remained untouched. No steps were taken to improve the material conditions of the workers, grant land to the peasantry or end the war. Therefore, we see that — despite a manifesto published by the Petrograd Soviet Executive Committee on 13 March meekly condemning the war — the position adopted by the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks meant its continuation.
Both the Provisional Government and their opportunist allies in the Soviets justified their positions with the most absurd rhetoric. A stunning example of this can be seen in the Provisional Government’s handling of land. Whilst in practice it opposed the seizure of land and did its best to help landlords escape the matter, it promised that a Constituent Assembly would examine the question at a later date. This was intended to put off the question for as long as needed. For their part, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries needed to justify their effective support for the war. The Mensheviks did so with the formula of “revolutionary defencism”. They argued that, whilst the war was imperialist in character, the Russian workers should pressurise the Provisional Government to make an appeal to end the war without the annexation of land. Until such an agreement was made, Russia should continue in the war to defend its territories from German imperialism.
The Bolshevik position on ‘revolutionary defencism’ had always been one of strong opposition, in line with their understanding that the war was one of a completely predatory, imperialist character. However, when the editorial responsibility for Pravda was given to Stalin and Kamenev on 13 March, this position began to slacken. The official Bolshevik response to the Soviet’s 13 March manifesto, which supported both the Provisional Government and consequently the war, was authored by Stalin and published on 17 March. Whilst Stalin formally recognised the war as imperialist, he argued that the workers and peasants must pressurise the Provisional Government to make an appeal to end the war without annexations. Bluntly, Stalin accepted the Menshevik position on the new bourgeois government. This meant that there was no reason for the two organisations to remain separate. At an all-Russian congress of the Bolshevik Party toward the end of March, Stalin made this position clear. He proposed a motion to enter into negotiations with the Mensheviks with the purpose of reunifying the organisations on a programme of moderate opposition to the war. The motion was passed, with fourteen votes for it and thirteen against.
This was a disastrous change in the Bolshevik’s position. The moment was ripe for revolution, with the ruling class in disarray and a lively, vigorous movement of the oppressed capable of smashing them. Yet, without a revolutionary party this moment would pass, the ruling class would regain strength and the movement would be smashed. It fell to Lenin to resolve the situation. Having watched the proceedings with increasing frustration, he set out from his exile in Switzerland and returned to Russia by 3 April.
Lenin’s arguments were set out in one of the most important documents of the revolution, The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution — also known as the April Theses. I have provided a link to the document in the description. Its essential arguments were centred on two positions that would prove instrumental in the establishment of socialism in Russia. Firstly, Lenin reiterated that the present war was one of a thoroughly predatory and imperialist character. As a government of capitalists, the Provisional Government could not do without annexations, nor keep any of its promises to the Russian workers and peasants. It needed to be ruthlessly exposed. He then turned his attention to the Soviets. In line with the position he had earlier expressed through his letters to the Bolshevik Party, Lenin argued that the revolution was passing from its first to its second phase. The fundamental task of Russian revolutionaries was to ensure that this phase placed power in the hands of the workers and peasants. This could be accomplished by placing power in the hands of the Soviets, ‘the only possible form of revolutionary government’, by bringing all of Russia’s production and distribution under their control. In order to achieve this, the Bolsheviks needed to explain their arguments patiently and carefully in the Soviets, where they still occupied a minority position.
The Theses were published in Pravda on 7 April. The next day, they were rejected by the rest of the Bolshevik leadership. A note from Kamenev in the paper emphasised that they expressed only Lenin’s personal opinion and at a meeting of the Petrograd party committee they were rejected by a vote of thirteen against to two for. It was only when Lenin’s position was heard by party members with closer contact with the workers and soldiers that he began to gain ground. At the Petrograd City Conference, held between 14 and 22 April, a motion put forward by Kamenev that the Soviets should exercise ‘the most watchful control’ over the Provisional Government was defeated. By the first All-Russian Congress, held between the 24 and 29 April, Lenin had won. His resolutions on the war were carried overwhelming by the 150 delegates.
The reason for this was simple: Lenin’s position had been confirmed by reality. On 18 April it became known that the Provisional Government’s Foreign Minister, Pavel Milyukov, had sent a note to all the members of the Provisional Government stationed abroad. This note said that the revolution should not be interpreted as entailing ‘ a weakening of the role of Russia in the common struggle of the Allies’ and reassured them that Russia would ‘fight the world war out to a decisive victory.’ This revealed the true intention of the bourgeois government: to continue a predatory, imperialist war, irrespective of what rhetoric was needed to justify it.
The Bolshevik Party now possessed the programme necessary to bring about the revolution in Russia. The task was still immense. The Party still occupied a minority position within the Soviets and lacked the influence amongst the workers and peasants necessary to bring about the revolution.
Not only did Milyukov’s note succeed in helping to cement Lenin’s position within the Bolshevik Party, it further illustrated antagonisms between the Provisional Government and the Soviets. Whilst the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries attempted to give the note a favourable interpretation, the Russians soldiers had had enough. On 21 April, a demonstration called by the Bolsheviks was strongly supported by the workers of the Vyborg district and by armed soldiers. Another demonstration on the same day revealed that the forces of counter-revolution were beginning to organise, with armed officers, the cadets and the gilded youth openly taking to the streets for the first time. Civil war was imminent.
A few flowery phrases were hastily added to the note, attempting to cloud its point by stating that the Provisional Government did not seek to use the war for annexation or conquest. Consequently, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries used their influence in the Soviets to get the soldiers and workers to abandon any further demonstrations. The new formula of the note was accepted in the Petrograd Soviet by an overwhelming majority. Whilst the conflict between the Provisional Government and the Soviets had been put off, the incident demonstrated that the workers and soldiers answered only to the Soviet’s orders. The question of dual power needed to be resolved.
On 26 April, the government set out to do precisely that. It asked the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks to participate directly in the Provisional Government, as part of a coalition. The matter was not decided for several days, the opportunists swaying between the promise of becoming government officials and their credibility. On 1 May, a vote in the Petrograd Soviet Executive Committee saw them agree to join with the Provisional Government, with only the Bolsheviks and a small faction of left-wing Mensheviks in opposition.
The coalition allowed the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries to take power in six ministries from a total of sixteen. Crucially, these so-called “socialists” took control of the ministries of agriculture and labour. A third quote-unquote “socialist” party — the Popular Socialists — took control of the ministry of war, with Kerensky assuming the post. They made very rash promises as the coalition was formed. For example, Skobelev — the Minister of Labour — declared that the government would ‘take 100 percent’ of all profits made in Russia. The intent of this bluster was to conceal the true purpose of the government. This was contained within a clause of a declaration produced upon assuming power. It stated that the government would prepare the army for defensive and offensive manoeuvres. Russia’s allies needed them to launch an offensive. The new government was to be one of war.
Whilst the Coalition Government initially succeeded in presenting itself as a step forward to the non-Bolshevik masses, the situation didn’t last long. As policy became more overtly pro-capitalist, the masses began to turn. The Bolsheviks had particular success in two areas: the Kronstadt naval base and the Petrograd factories. Between March and the end of July, the capitalists carried out an offence against the workers by means of a lock-out. In total, five hundred and sixty eight factories were closed, with one hundred and four thousand jobs lost. The Bolsheviks proposed a simple solution: arrest between fifty to a hundred of the biggest millionaires, make their profits public and force them to reveal their fraudulent practices. The position resonated deeply with the workers. At the first conference of Petrograd Factory Committees, held between 30 May and 3 June, the Bolshevik resolutions passed with 80% of the vote. In Kronstadt, Russia’s chief naval base, the Bolsheviks dominated. This was due to the class forces at the base, where 25.4% of the sailors were working class and 90% of the young officers from the nobility. As a consequence, discipline had been utterly barbaric in the period before 1917. Hatred for the war boiled amongst the sailors and, as the only Party to oppose the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks gained support naturally.
Whilst their popularity was growing, the Bolsheviks were still in a minority. At the first All Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers and Soldiers Deputies, held between 3 and 25 June, they possessed the smallest number of delegates. The Socialist Revolutionaries held two hundred and eighty five delegates, the Mensheviks two hundred and fourty eight and the Bolsheviks only one hundred and five. Consequently, the Congress was able to pass a motion to allow Kerensky to resume military operations on 12 June. Only the Bolsheviks voted against.
An offensive was launched on 18 June. Initially, it made rapid progress, coming across only deserted trenches and undefended positions. All seemed to be going well. However, when the Austrian army showed its face, this changed dramatically. The Russian army went into retreat. Officers at the front reported mass desertions and a collective refusal to obey orders. Kerensky’s offensive had failed. The soldiers would not fight an imperialist war.
The Bolsheviks were now faced with an incredibly difficult task. The masses were angry and demanded action. However, the moment was premature. As Lenin said at the All-Russian Conference of Bolshevik Military Organisations, held on 20 June, the vast majority of the masses were wavering between the Bolsheviks and the opportunists within the Coalition Government. If an attempt to seize power was successful, it would be impossible to retain it. The task now was to prevent the masses from making a premature uprising. What followed saw the contradictions between the Bolsheviks and the Coalition Government erupt.
On 3 July, with the offensive in full retreat, Kerensky ordered regiments from Petrograd to be sent to the front. The soldiers exploded in protest. Led by the the First Machine Gun Regiment, they called for an armed demonstration and sent delegates to rally more forces from the factories and Kronstadt. By 7pm all of the factory workers had gone on strike. The Coalition Government spent the day attempting to rally troops, but was unable to call more than one hundred to its side.
The next day twenty thousand armed sailors marched from Kronstadt to the Bolshevik headquarters in Petrograd. They were greeted by Lenin. He called for all power to be handed to the Soviets, but cautioned that the sailors must be firm, vigilant and steadfast. From there the sailors marched toward the Tauride Palace, which housed the Petrograd Soviet. On the way they were ambushed. A small battle between the demonstrators and some cossacks saw the death of thirteen people, with a further thirty two being wounded. When the procession reached the Soviet, a group of peasant soldiers took the Minister of Agriculture — a member of the Socialist Revolutionaries named Chernov — hostage. They demanded a redistribution of the land. Trotsky intervened to prevent the men from killing him.
Although the demonstrations were fierce, they lacked Party organisation. As such, they did not attempt to seize power. No attempts were made to seize railway stations, post offices or banks — that is, the instruments of power. The demonstrators were not strong enough to secure the Soviet power they desired. The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries took this weakness in the movement as an opportunity to sow the seeds of counter-revolution. They spread a rumour that Lenin was a German spy. This was widely publicised by a fascist, Tsarist newspaper and succeeded in rallying troops to the aid of the capitalists and opportunists.
At 2am on 5 July, the offices of Pravda — the Bolshevik newspaper — were ransacked by a mob of officers and students. Two hours later, the three most reactionary guard battalions in Russia arrived to defend the Tauride Palace. One of them, the Izmailovsky Regiment, was instrumental in destroying the Petrograd Soviet in 1905. By the next day, the Coalition Government had secured enough forces to crush the uprising. The Bolshevik Party was effectively banned. Its newspapers were suppressed and its members were forced to leave their headquarters and go underground.
The defeats inflicted on the working class during July opened up the possibility of a full-scale counter revolution. In its desperation to maintain power, the Coalition Government had allied itself with the Black Hundred — a pro-Tsarist, fascist organisation — and other forces with a history of opposition to Soviet rule. Further, it had shown itself capable of quick and strong reaction, effectively ending the right to a free press in Russia by its censorship of Bolshevik newspapers. As the masses were falling back in confusion, the revolutionary movement could have been smashed.
Fortune favoured the Bolsheviks. The counter-revolution was unable to seize the crucial moment. Lenin’s first reaction to the set-back had been terror: ‘They are getting ready to shoot us all!’ Yet, he was shocked at the weakness of the reaction. Of the Party leadership only Kamenev, Lunacharsky and Trotsky were arrested, and only Lenin and Zinoviev went into hiding. Where the Party was weak, their members were forced out of work. Otherwise, they were demoralised but undefeated. The Bolshevik military organisation suffered the worst repression, with several of its best leaders arrested and its paper banned. Only one member was shot.
The reasons for the counter-revolution’s weakness stem from the war. Although the Coalition Government had been able to summon the most reactionary troops to its side, the mass of the soldiers still exhibited a passivity toward the Bolsheviks following the defeat. Had the June offensive been successful then a wave of patriotism might have swept the army. However, on 7 July it became known that the offensive had utterly crumbled. In the cities, conditions had deteriorated still further. A typical day’s ration in this period consisted of six hundred grams of bread per day, five eggs and four hundred and fifty grams of meat per week. This, in many cases, was purely theoretical.
What was established was a stalemate. The masses were not yet strong enough to seize power. The counter-revolution was not strong enough to crush them. This crisis expressed itself in two ways. First came a rapid series of governmental changes. This was followed by the open preparation of a coup d’état.
On 7 July the Popular Socialist Kerensky became Prime Minister, the blood of the war on his hands. Kerensky had previously been the Minister of War and the mastermind of the disastrous June offensive. He immediately set out to reshuffle the structure of the Provisional Government with the help of a Menshevik, Tsereteli. Whilst formally gaining power, the so-called “socialist bloc” gave serious concessions to the bourgeois Kadet Party. Reaction started even before the new Government was formed, with the death penalty restored on 12 July. On 25 July, the new cabinet was formed. The quote-unquote “socialists” occupied ten of sixteen posts in the new government. The Kadets made up the second bloc. This was a significantly reactionary second Coalition Government.
In this period the Bolsheviks had been able to regroup. Lenin argued that the key task of the Party was now to prepare for insurrection in documents sent from hiding. Although initially defeated at the Central Committee meeting held between the 13 and 14 July, a compromise motion close to Lenin’s position was passed at the Party’s Sixth Congress, held between 26 July and 3 August. Significantly, the Party now held firm roots amongst the masses. Membership had grown from eight thousand members in April, to two hundred thousand. The peasant land war continued unabated, meaning that the counter-revolution was unable to pursue the old-fashioned tactic of setting the peasants upon the workers.
The capitalist class needed to take decisive action. It clearly could not rely upon the quote-unquote “socialists”. It needed to crush all opposition to its rule, no matter how meek that opposition might be. Their first step toward this was to call a series of conferences in Moscow from the beginning of August. One of these, the Moscow State Conference, was held between the 12 and 14 July. Numerous peasant Soviets complained, asking if such a Conference could be held, then why not the Constituent Assembly based on universal suffrage promised by the Government since its formation? The Conference, intended to serve as a locus for the counter-revolution, was unable to play its role. A General Strike, led by the Bolsheviks, let them know that the masses were on alert.
The task of counter-revolution was passed to General Korlinov, appointed by Kerensky as Supreme Commander of the South Western front on 7 July. Whilst only of moderate competence in battle, he had an energetically fought press campaign and had become know as the ‘hero of the nation’. A simple plan was hatched. By arousing chauvinist excitement Korlinov would bring loyal regiments within striking distance of Petrograd. A Cossack colonel, Dutuv, was to simulate a Bolshevik insurrection in Petrograd, giving the pretext for an intervention to restore ‘law and order’. 27 August was the six-month anniversary of the revolution and the celebrations would offer the perfect opportunity for such provocation.
Korlinov received support from other imperialist nations, particularly the British. They now realised the need to restore order in their allied nation. Korlinov’s forces were supported by British armoured cars and British troops disguised in Russian uniforms. He was also able to rally cossacks and troops by abandoning ground to the advancing German army. Despite the strength of these forces, the plan never came to fruition. Political circumstances outflanked the counter-revolution.
Elections to the Petrograd Town Council on the 20 August showed that the Bolsheviks had considerable influence in the city. On a high-turnout the Bolsheviks secured the second highest number of votes, at 33% of the turnout. Their influence in the factories and the trade unions was enormous. The first stage of the plan was set in motion on 26 August, when the Kadet bloc of the Government resigned, creating a political crisis. At the anniversary the next day, the flimsy organisation of their conspirators scuppered them. Only Dutuv, the Cossack colonel, showed up to his faked insurrection. He ran through the streets, calling for people to follow him, and no-one did. Two of his co-conspirators spent the time drinking in clubs, until one of them slipped off with the funds.
Korlinov’s advance too, failed. Railway workers tore up the tracks or diverted Korlinov’s force into sidings. Once a Muslim delegation explained to the troops the aim of the conspiracy, they stuck a flag to their compartment that read ‘Land and Freedom’. Korlinov was unable to rally a single troop.
Had Korlinov been able to reach Petrograd he would have been met by the Red Army. A group of right-Mensheviks had proposed co-operation with the Bolsheviks in a Committee for Struggle with Counter-revolution. The Bolsheviks had accepted on two conditions — (1) that the workers be armed and (2) that this was a military-technical alliance, not a political one. At least thirteen thousand workers enrolled in the Red Guard. Not only had the counter-revolution melted, the Bolsheviks were both popular and armed. The seeds were sown for victory.
Throughout the first ten days of September, Lenin entertained and pursued a policy of compromise with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. He offered that the Bolsheviks would return to their old slogan, ‘All Power to the Soviets!’, with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries serving as a subordinate government body. The next day he was rejected. The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries instead chose to remain a prop in another Kerensky Government, again in alliance with the Kadets.
The possibility of a peaceful transfer of power had gone. Even after the Kadet Party has orchestrated an attempted coup, the Mesheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries would continue to work with them. The time had come for insurrection.
Conditions were favourable. In the first few weeks of September Soviets in Petrograd, Finland, Moscow, and Kiev passed a series of resolutions in favour of the formation of a Soviet government. Furthermore, the masses were being to see the Bolsheviks as their Party, not simply support their resolutions. On 9 September, the Bolsheviks won a decisive victory, with Trotsky elected as chair of the Petrograd Soviet. In the countryside, the peasants were starting to realise that they would not get land from the Socialist Revolutionaries, who they had traditionally seen as their Party. They would have to take it themselves. Soldiers on leave became an increasingly common feature in this struggle.
The reaction of the bourgeoisie compounded the issue. They were considering abandoning Petrograd and retreating to Moscow. They preferred the idea of a German victory than one for the Bolsheviks. As such, they resolved to starve our the population. Throughout September, factories throughout Petrograd were closed and mass lay-offs ransacked the workers. This was facilitated by the Menshevik Minister of Labour, who revoked workers rights on hiring and firing. Hunger clasped at the throats of the working class, whilst the capitalists lounged in luxury and excess.
Still in hiding and with a price on his head, Lenin wrote two letters to the Petrograd Central Committee, urging them to make immediate preparations for the seizure of power. The leaders were stunned by the urgency of instructions and, rather embarrassed, voted to keep one copy of the letters and burn the rest. Lenin’s request to have the letters shared with other Party Committees was rejected.
The struggle that ensued within the Bolshevik Party is both long and complex. Lenin’s views were effectively suppressed by the Party leadership in Petrograd. For example, Lenin wrote an article criticising the Bolshevik’s decision to participate in a conference with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries between 14 and 21 September. This conference was an attempt to form some coherent political coalition. It resolved nothing and, in Lenin’s article, should have been boycotted. This was printed, but with all of these criticisms removed. After a protracted struggle, Lenin succeeded in convincing a Central Committee meeting that the moment was ripe for the seizure of state power on 10 October. They were further aided by their enemies. In the second week of October, the Provisional Government announced its intent to move the Russian front away from Petrograd. The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries proposed the formation of a special committee to organise the defence of the city. The Bolsheviks won a resolution to have this fall under the command of a Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC), which would effectively led by Bolsheviks. Under the pretence of preparing for war, they prepared to seize power.
The insurrection was launched on the 20 October, after the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries postponed the Congress of Soviets. The MRC sent key combat units out against a provocative march panned by Cossacks. Their march cancelled, the Bolshevik led forces issued a challenge to the Provisional Government. They forced the Government to agree that only military directives signed by the MRC were valid. Two days later, at a celebration of the formation of the Petrograd Soviet, Bolshevik speakers raised the cry for revolution amongst the masses.
The only substantial resistance the Government was really able to offer the Bolsheviks occurred on 24 October. At 6am, Junkers broke up the printing press of Workers Path. In the evening, officers attempted to raise the bridges that link central Petrograd to the working class district. Both of these attempts crumbled. The printing press was reopened by Lithuanian soldiers that rose against their officers. The officers were driven off by a crowd of armed civilians. In response to the Government’s efforts, the Bolsheviks succeed in seizing their first organ of state power — a telegraph office. They seized the building bloodlessly, without firing a single shot.
It is hard to capture the atmosphere of the old regime in its final days. Based on my reading, I would personally describe it as ghostly. During the last weeks of their rule in Russia, the bourgeoisie lived their lives in an uninterrupted flow of a particular hedonism. The became gluttons for the arts, the theatre. In the journalistic account Ten Days that Shook the World, John Reed describes how hoards of the young, female Russian bourgeoisie went lectures on art, philosophy and literature every night. Later in the evenings they overflowed on wine and mysticism. To me, it seems they hid from reality the greater its pressure grew around them.
The main phase of the revolution occurred completely bloodlessly. There was no street fighting, no barricades, no hand-to-hand clashes and virtually no casualties. A slow methodical crawl between 2am and 7am on 25 October saw the Bolsheviks secure an enormous number of key positions in Petrograd — from the two main train stations to the telephone service. At 10am, the MRC issued a slightly premature declaration that the Provisional Government had been overthrown. Kerensky fled the capital in a car supplied by the US embassy.
The final battle of the revolution was the siege of the Winter Palace, where ministers of the Provisional Government had taken refuge. Whilst this comes closest to being any kind of heroic final charge, the battle was comically disorganised. As a consequence it was a drawn out battle that took place over a long night. It was not until 2:30am the following morning that the Bolsheviks dispersed the Government and Soviet power was won.
The lessons of the revolution are many and powerful. The way in which the Bolsheviks fought the class war throughout 1917 is a powerful and insightful account of how to consistently advocate for positions, explain them and win influence. More than this, the power of the Bolshevik’s analysis in 1917 allowed them to strike at the most favourable political moment. The accuracy of this insight led to the seizure of state power in October being all but bloodless. That the revolution was won on the basis of such a strong influence amongst the masses proves how the Bolshevik’s political battle with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries proved to be the most decisive of the period. There is a lot to learn from its study.
I regret that I haven’t been able to cover every aspect of the revolution, particularly in regard to the peasant struggle. I have provided a link that discusses this in detail in the description. The importance of this history for the present analysis is that Eisenstein’s film assumes an understanding of its fundamental processes.
Part two: The October controversy
The title of this section refers to a contemporary debate, not to that which occurred in the Soviet Union. The most controversial elements of the film around the period of its release were the performance of Nikandrov — the actor given the role of Lenin — and its artistic techniques. Whilst Nikandrov’s portrayal received extraordinarily sharp criticism at the time, with the poet Mayakovsky going so far as to call it ‘disgusting’, it is of little consequence to modern critiques of Eisenstein’s work. Although I don’t want to appear glib, I think it safe to suggest that this reaction was bound up in the collective mourning of Lenin’s death four years prior to the film’s release. I have provided some links which discuss the Soviet reaction to the film’s technique in the description.
What, then, is “the October controversy” that I am referring to? Put bluntly, it is the distortion of the meaning of October’s production within so-called “Marxist” artistic analysis. A startling example of this can be seen in a 2012 article by Bernd Reinhardt, available on the World Socialist Web Site. Reinhardt argues that, due to changes made to the film by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Eisenstein’s work is not complete and its meaning has been tampered with beyond repair. Such claims are exaggerated and, frankly, stand apart from any sincere attempt to analyse either Eisenstein’s work or the history behind it from a Marxist position. As such, my analysis of October’s production is explicitly intended to address this position and its political consequences. I have provided a link to Reinhardt’s article in the description should any of you wish to familiarise yourself with it.
October was one of three films commissioned in 1926 by the October Anniversary Commission of the Presidium of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR. All of these films were intended to mark the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of state power. Initially, Eisenstein conceptualised the work as covering both the period between February and October, and the Russian Civil War. He submitted this plan to the Anniversary Commission and it was rejected. Reinhardt presents this as the censorship of a ‘self-serving bureaucracy’, drawing particular attention to the fact that Eisenstein’s conception would have depicted ‘all the victories of the Red Army under Trotsky’. In reality, it was a consideration based upon political, artistic and economic questions.
I shall attend to the political reasoning first. At the time of October’s production the leadership of the CPSU was more or less split between two factions — one headed by Trotsky and the other by Stalin. Speaking broadly, this was a consequence of Lenin’s death. As the history I have given in part one of this episode indicates, Lenin held an irreplaceable position in the Bolshevik Party’s leadership. He was instrumental in the seizure of state power, saving both the Party and the revolution from ruin not once but twice. Beyond this, Lenin was behind the vast majority of crucial developments in the Party’s political development, beginning even before the Bolshevik-Menshevik split in 1903. No one in the Party commanded the same authority or political insight as him. As such, his death entailed a general crisis of leadership in the Party. Whilst it is true to say that Trotsky was losing the struggle for leadership by the time October was commissioned — he was removed from the political bureau of the CPSU in November the same year — he still held a position on the Central Committee. The fundamental political meaning of the decision to reject Eisenstein’s proposal by the Anniversary Commission is, to my mind, an attempt to remain neutral on this split.
Artistically, the Anniversary Commission’s decision is understandable in two ways. Firstly, as a film intended to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the October revolution, it seems thematically prudent to limit the work’s scope to those events. Secondly, the film runs to an hour and fourty two minutes in its handling of the events of eight months. To extend the scope of Eisenstein’s work to include the Russian Civil War — which lasted three years — would be to extend its run-time ad infinitum.
This relates to the economic reasoning behind the Anniversary Commission’s decision. Even in its present form, October was an expensive film to make. Eisenstein was given access to thousands of extras, an enormous budget and full run of the Winter Palace. As well as extending the film’s run-time, allowing Eisenstein to make his initial proposal would have entailed exponentially extending his resources. The Anniversary Commission’s funds were not unlimited, nor was October their only filmic project. It is worth noting that the Soviet Union was the first state in the world to provide official funding to experimental cinéma, Eisenstein’s film being one of the first and most expensive. To expect the state to provide a budget verging on infinity is, frankly, to live in a fantasy.
Before attending to the second set of edits made to October, I want to spend a moment underscoring the fundamental difference between the approach adopted by Reinhardt and that taken by myself. I’ll put this bluntly. In rejecting the edits made to October by the CPSU as reactionary, Reinhardt is rejecting both socialism and Marxism. His analysis rests upon the assumption that October is fundamentally incomplete unless it follows, to the letter, Eisenstein’s initial intent. In making this assumption, he is refuting the fundamental nature of socialist production: that it is organised under the control of the workers, expressed politically through the vehicle of the socialist state. And what is a socialist state? It is the democratic dictatorship of the working class, not simply artists.
As I have said, Reinhardt’s argument here rests on a refutation of both socialism and Marxism. I have explained how he has renounced socialism. What remains is to show how he has abandoned Marx.
To Marxists, art is a social relationship. This is expressed in both production and consumption. If I were to make a film for myself, it would be a film to me and me alone. This is individual consumption, not art. If that same film were shown at a cinéma, it would become transformed, becoming art— a relation between myself and my audience. However, even in the first instance described, my film would be a social product. I exist in society and cannot help but be conditioned by it. My film would be a product of the economic and ideological relationships that construct society, as am I. Reinhardt’s argument that October is incomplete requires him either to renounce this position or to claim that almost every film made in human history is also incomplete. Changes of the kind made to October are made to films produced in capitalist society frequently. Producers change or reject concepts, test their newest films before trial audiences and edit films without the permission of their directors as a matter of course. As Reinhardt hasn’t a single word to spare upon such questions, we must assume he does not consider art as a social product, but as the crystallisation of individual genius. His position is based on mystification, not Marxism.
I will now discuss the edits made to the film that were overseen by Stalin. An unfinished version of October was to be shown at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 7 November, 1927. On the same day, a directive was delivered to Eisenstein, instructing him that all of the scenes in the film featuring Trotsky were to be cut. The reasoning behind this was that the Trotskyist opposition had held demonstrations in Moscow and Leningrad earlier that day. Stalin came to oversee the edits in person. Most of these edits involved simply removing Trotsky from the film, presumably in an attempt to duck the question during a potentially inflammatory moment. However, one edit involved replacing Trotsky. A scene toward the end of October would have shown Trotsky making a speech as head of the Petrograd Soviet, a role he possessed from 25 September, 1917. However, in the final film he is replaced by another popular Bolshevik orator — Yakov Sverdlov.
I want to make two things clear here. Firstly, this edit to the film is, in my opinion, both unnecessary and politically incorrect. The role that Trotsky played in the Petrograd Soviet was incredibly important and deserved recognition were any portrayal of his role necessary in Eisenstein’s work. Secondly, pointing this out does not, in any way, implicate a renunciation of the Soviet Union. The USSR was both a socialist society and an enormous step forward for the international working class until its collapse in 1991. Its history requires a real defence. In order to offer one, we need to understand it through the lens of reality. This requires us to renounce simplistic interpretations of Soviet history. This is particularly relevant as it applies to Stalin. I believe Fidel Castro put it best. I quote:
‘ In my opinion, blaming Stalin for everything that occurred in the Soviet Union would be historical simplism, because no man by himself could have created certain conditions. It would be the same as giving Stalin all the credit for what the USSR once was. That is impossible! I believe that the efforts of millions and millions of heroic people contributed to the USSR’s development and to its relevant role in the world in favour of hundreds of millions of people.’
As it pertains to October, this position requires us to acknowledge several facts. To the best of my knowledge, no document exists recording the editing session where Stalin was present. It is impossible to say if the idea to replace Trotsky came from him, from Eisenstein or from someone else. His role in the process certainly deserves criticism, but to say that he was responsible is to speak without evidence.
Beyond this, I think it incredibly important to highlight that the edits made to October were, in this period, the exception and not the rule. The period in which October was produced was one of unprecedented artistic freedom in Russia, particularly in regards to the medium of film. This is signposted by the willingness of the Soviet state to fund avant-garde, experimental films, something which — as I have said — had never happened before anywhere in the world. I will return to the question the Soviet state’s control of the arts at a later date.
Reinhardt again distorts this question. Here, we see the fundamental problem with his analysis emerge. Rather than to try and set the history of October’s production upon its feet, Reinhardt’s concern is to use October as lens through which to denounce Stalin and the Soviet Union. He even goes so far as to implicate the film was banned all but immediately after its first showing. October was immensely unpopular upon its release and, as such, granted only a limited run. The banning of Eisenstein’s work in the USSR began in 1948, with his film Ivan the Terrible, Part 2. Whilst it would be accurate to say that period after the film’s release saw the beginning of a motion away from the artistic freedom I have described here, and that Eisenstein’s film became a part of this process, such a discussion is beyond the scope of the present analysis.
Part three: Eisenstein’s technique
The reasons behind October’s lack of popularity are bound-up in the film’s artistic technique. It is a notoriously difficult work, sometimes described as unintelligible. The reasons for this are to do with Eisenstein’s conception of the medium. Rather than approaching his art as a tool for simple political sloganeering or entertainment, he considered that film could itself be used as form of Marxist political theory. October is not intended to be entertaining in a traditional sense. It is an attempt to depict the Bolshevik revolution in Marxist theoretical terms.
Throughout the next two sections of this episode, I will attempt to explain the artistic theory used by Eisenstein throughout his work. In order to do this, I have constructed my analysis into two distinct parts. Firstly, I will explain October’s technical elements — the idea montage and the use of classes as character. Following this, the fourth part of this episode will look at the method and meaning behind these considerations.
The meaning behind the term “intellectual montage” can be found in an essay of Eisenstein’s, titled A Dialectical Approach to Film Form. The article was written a year after October’s production and takes the piece as the basis for its analysis. In his definition of montage, Eisenstein is clear to signal that he does not simply consider the term to refer to the editing and arrangement of film. For example, he would not consider the beginning of Pixar’s Up to represent a cinématic montage. To Eisenstein, the term refers to something quite specific. He describes this as a collision of imagery — a conflict — from which an idea arises. It is to this specific form that the term “intellectual montage” refers.
When first encountering this description, it can appear meaningless. I struggled with translating the concept to reality for a long time. The easiest way to grasp what Eisenstein means is to see how he uses the concept in practice. I will attempt to illustrate this through an examination of how the technique is used in one section of October.
The intellectual montage is used with its most simplistic elegance in a famous scene set during the July Days. The sequence begins with the camera perched high above the intersection of two streets — the Sadovaia and Nevsky Prospects. We see masses of pro-Bolshevik demonstrators fleeing across these public spaces. Then, Eisenstein cuts to a combination of two images: the face of a soldier and the firing of his machine gun are layered on top of each other. This is a literal rendition of what Eisenstein means when he describes the montage as a collision, or a conflict, of imagery. As the two images meld together, they produce the impression — the idea — that the man and his machine gun are the same. He is dehumanised and shown to be nothing but a tool for the oppression of the people. The collision transforms both of the images used. The man is the machine gun and the machine gun is the man.
This example provides a very visceral, direct and literal window into Eisenstein’s understanding of montage. It contains all of the essential ideas behind his device. However, the collision I have described isn’t the only one within the scene and contains only a portion of what October is communicating here. As I have said, the opening of the sequence is used to show us an incredibly removed image of the masses fleeing. As the scene continues, Eisenstein cuts back and forth between this shot and the overlay of the soldier and his gun. This is another montage, another collision of imagery. This time, the two shots are connected by the motion of the film, rather than an overlay. Within the context of the scene, this produces the idea that the Provisional Government exists in opposition to the masses. Its tool — that is, the soldier — is being shown in direct antagonism to the people fleeing for their lives. This idea is further reinforced by the positioning of the camera. By raising the shot to such a high vantage point, Eisenstein has prevented us from seeing the suffering of the people. The idea produced by the combination of all these images is that a brutal government is oppressing the people from a comfortable and safe distance.
Hopefully, this illustration of Eisenstein’s technique can provide a window into the work. However, I do not want to pretend that it can render the whole film intelligible. There are some utterly bizarre attempts to use the intellectual montage in October. Whilst I think the scene I have described succeeds in pulling off the idea, another famous scene uses it in an, ironically, mystifying manner. In this segment, Eisenstein attempts to depict the counter-revolutionary General Korlinov’s militarism through religious imagery. To do so he cuts together the image of a Baroque Christ with a huge mask of Uzume, Goddess of Mirth, a ferocious Chinese dragon, a Buddha. the Hindu god-goddess Shiva, an Eskimo carving and a South Sea island mask. The central image for the director here is the overlay of Christ and the mask of Uzume. The rays of light from Christ’s halo are meant to combine with the egg-like shape of the mask, producing the impression of a bomb. As Anna Chen wrote in 1998, ‘it is unlikely that many viewers would follow Eisenstein’s exact line of logic’. Even if a viewer were able to grasp what the intended imagery was here, it is difficult to arrive at what Eisenstein intended as its meaning — that is, the contradiction between the brutal reality of Tsarist rule and its ideological justification through religion.
The use of intellectual montage within October provides one explanation for the film’s reputation as being overly obscure. Another can be found in how Eisenstein constructed the film’s narrative. There are no traditional protagonists whatsoever in the work. Equally, the film’s structure does not follow any pattern that its audience might have been familiar with in the form of fiction. The reason for this quite simple. Largely, Eisenstein does not adapt the events of the revolution to fit into established narrative structures of film. He adapts film to fit the political structure of the revolution.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that the film is an accurate depiction of the Bolshevik revolution. It isn’t. For example, there is a notable discrepancy between Eisenstein’s depiction of the Bolshevik storming of the Winter Palace and the real event. Eisenstein fills his depiction of the battle with tension, intrigue and drama, showing to be an heroic charge to victory. History tells us otherwise. As I said in part one of this episode, the siege of the Winter Palace was a chaotic event, filled with blunders and accidents. Here, the reality of events differs considerably from how they are depicted. What I mean when I say that Eisenstein adapts film to the political structure of the revolution is that he uses film to outline its essential processes. October is structured around the class struggle that underpinned the Bolshevik revolution.
This is something that comes across most clearly in the film’s handling of its protagonist. Rather than an individual, Eisenstein’s hero is quite literally the Russian working class and peasantry. The film never centres upon an individual. The closest it comes to doing so is in its depiction of Lenin’s return to Petrograd on 3 April and, even then, Eisenstein overlays his shots of Lenin with shots of the crowd, depicting him as a part of a broader historical process. This is necessary for the film. It allows Eisenstein to jump around in time and space without needing to manufacture a reason for a central character to do so, or move between an unreasonable number of protagonists. It is worth pointing out that the idea of a collective protagonist was by no means new to Soviet art by the time of the film’s release. To my knowledge, the earliest use of the device is in Twenty-six Men and a Girl, a short story written by the famous revolutionary writer Maxim Gorky and published in 1899. However, in Eisenstein the device is used in an exceptionally broad and novel way. By making the protagonist of his film the Russian working class, Eisenstein is able to structure the work around their struggle.
As such, the film’s structure follows the decisive political moments of the revolution. It begins with the February revolution and proceeds through every other crucial event in the struggle of the Russian working class: the April Theses, the July Days, Korlinov’s failed counter-revolution and the October insurrection. This is in keeping with Eisenstein’s artistic attitudes. In the preface to his 1948 memoirs, he wrote:
‘The revolution gave me the most precious thing in life — it made an artist out of me. If it had not been for the revolution I would never have broken the tradition, handed down from father to son, of becoming an engineer … The revolution introduced me to art, and art, in its own turn, brought me to the revolution …’
With regard to October, I suggest that this should be taken quite literally. Eisenstein modelled the entirety of his film upon the historical progress of the Bolshevik revolution. In order to do so, he developed two filmic devices capable of theoretically expressing the driving forces of that revolution. In my opinion, this is the key to unlock his project.
Part four: Approaching Eisenstein’s dialectic
The fundamental political project at work in October is an attempt to elevate art to the level of Marxist theoretical practice. This is something that is made clear by Eisenstein in A Dialectical Approach to Film Form — that is, his essay reflecting on the film. At the beginning of the piece, he distinguishes between what he views as philosophy and what he views as art. In doing so, he shows that he considers them to be component parts of the same project, with the two forms expressing merely different applications of the Marxist method. To Eisenstein, philosophy is the application of Marxism to ‘creating abstractly’ — that is, to ‘the process of thinking’. In contrast, his art is the application of Marxism to ‘creating concretely’ and the creation of form.
It would be wrong to think that I can offer anything near to a complete explanation in the time we have left here. An explanation of the Marxist method alone would require its own episode. Instead, I want to centre in on one aspect of Eisenstein’s dialectic as it appears in October — that which is created by the combination of the two artistic techniques described in the previous part of this episode. In order to do so, I need to explain a fundamental conception of Marxist dialectics. I have attached an article introducing the Marxist method — also known as dialectical materialism — in the description for those of you wanting to explore it further.
Human society is a unity of opposites. Whilst it functions as a unified whole, it is also divided into classes with mutually antagonistic interests. The contradiction between classes is what presently drives the development of human history. In modern society, this contradiction takes the form of the struggle between the capitalist class and the working class. As the dominant class, the capitalists organise society as such that it may meet their needs — that is, in order to accumulate profit. However, in order to do this they must continually exploit the labour-power of the working class. As such, the capitalist organisation of production contains its opposite in the form of the working class, who have no interest in being exploited. In opposition to the interests of the capitalist class, the class interests of the workers are the abolition of private property and, consequently, of capitalist society. The contradiction may be resolved in one of two ways: the abolition of private property and the advent of socialism, or the common ruin of both the capitalists and the workers.
Theoretically, this can be expressed in another way. The thesis of modern society is its organisation by the capitalist class. This produces its anti-thesis: the workers. The combination of these two factors will, at some point, lead to a synthesis. This transcends the previous contradiction and produces both a new thesis and a new anti-thesis. As society is an unity of both factors, this eventual transformation cannot be avoided indefinitely.
It is this dynamic of the Marxist dialectic that Eisenstein brings to life in October. The film constantly posits a thesis, illustrates its anti-thesis and then transcends them through a synthesis. This is how it moves.
This is vividly shown in the work’s second sequence, a depiction of the February revolution. The first shot of this sequence presents us with a statue of the Tsar. He, and the system that he represents, are the thesis of the scene — a stony, seemingly immovable power. After a few more shots of the statue, Eisenstein cuts to our anti-thesis: an angry mass of people. They surround the statue and throw ropes around it. Over a few more shots we see the two forces collide, the statue first wobbling before the masses. Finally, in the thirty first shot of the sequence, we see the statue fall and shatter. Tsarism has fallen, destroyed by its collision with the masses. This produces a synthesis, here provided in the form of a title card reading ‘For all! For all!’
I want to suggest that, in this one scene, we can see an example of how all of the elements of Eisenstein’s film are united behind its theoretical method. In order to produce the pattern “thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis” Eisentstein makes careful use of both the intellectual montage and his understanding of protagonist as class. Both the thesis and the anti-thesis of the scene are depicted purely through imagery: the shots of the Tsar’s statue and the shots of the masses. These images represent not simply the things depicted, but classes. Their collision in montage is the collision of both real historical process and the two opposing sides of a contradiction. This produces two things: an idea and a synthesis. The idea is carried into the next scene, itself becoming a thesis. The title card ‘For all! For all!’ collides with a second title card, ‘Long live the Provisional Government!’. This is its anti-thesis. Synthesis is thus abandoned and contradiction reintroduced to the film.
A 2004 article by Murray Sperber exhaustively details how this procession from thesis to synthesis is worked into every movement of the film. I have provided a link in the description and strongly recommend the piece to anyone wanting to further understand Eisenstein’s method. It is invaluable and goes a long way in illustrating how Eisenstein’s film works as a piece of Marxism. What emerges from observing how this process works across the whole of October is an understanding of how closely Eisenstein modelled his film on the Marxist understanding of history.
In his Philosophical Notebooks Lenin wrote that ‘Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral’. This pattern is followed precisely in Eisenstein’s work. The same process repeats itself again and again. Yet, each time it repeats it also changes, producing new possibilities. To put this another way, the pattern “thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis” repeats throughout all of October, yet each thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis is different from the last. This sheds new light on the analysis offered in the previous part of this episode. Eisenstein structures his narrative around the history of Russian revolution and, in doing so, implicitly bases his film’s structure on the progression of the Marxist dialectic. This is one sense in which Eisenstein is applying Marxist theory to art — that is, to the creation of form.
Part five: Marxism as Art
Before concluding, I think it fitting to spare a final word on Eisenstein’s essential project: the application of Marxism to art. In the first episode of this series, I stated that my purpose in all of this work is to develop a practicable Marxist politics of art. Eisenstein attempted such a project, expanding on it through his later work. Before his death he was working on bringing this project to a form of fruition, putting together the outline for a film on Marx’s Capital. What we see specifically in Eisenstein is an example of an attempt to apply Marxism to artistic form.
I don’t want to pretend that Eisenstein is unique in this regard. There have been various attempts to apply Marxism to artistic form. Brecht, for example, developed a technique known as “the alienation effect”. Whilst I intend to discuss these other attempts in later episodes, my fundamental criticism of Eisenstein is applicable to most — if not all — that have attempted to develop such a “Marxist aesthetic”.
As I said earlier in this episode, art is a social relation. It is a specific form of relationship that exists between the artist and their audience. Furthermore, its form is conditioned by social forces prior to production, by the concerns of artistic production themselves and in consumption. If we consider what Eisenstein is attempting to get at — how art forms communicate and shape meaning — then we discover that aethestics too are conditioned by social forces. To put this bluntly: apples did not evolve to be symbols of sin. Rather, we developed as a species to understand them as such, in particular parts of the world over given periods. How we interpret symbolism, film structure or editing is a product of artistic history.
This presents any artist attempting to produce Marxist forms of art — particularly one as aesthetically radical as Eisenstein — with a problem. Once their work has been produced it must also be understood. As the work will often use some form of new artistic language, this is a difficult task for any potential audience to come to grips with. As we have seen, in order to even make October truly intelligible it is necessary to approach how films create meaning in a radically different way. Whatever new formal language has been developed must also be learned. Without the proliferation of many works using the same processes, this is unlikely to occur on a significant scale. As I have said, this is one reason why October was unpopular on its release and today remains both obscure and difficult.
I am not arguing that Eisenstein’s project was worthless or unsuccessful. It wasn’t. If you take the time necessary with it, there is an enormous amount to be gained and appreciated from this approach. My criticism is quite simple: adopting a Marxist aesthetic does not necessarily equate to the proliferation of Marxist politics in any way. Meanwhile, artistic works that exercise absolutely no Marxism in their form can elicit huge amounts of sympathy for the communist cause — Gorky’s novel Mother, for example. In this sense, Eisenstein and those like him represent one-sided developments in the history of art. Situating Marxism as art does not provide us with a Marxist politics of art.
If Eisenstein was not crafting works that elicited popular understanding and support, where do his ideas fit within a Marxist politics of art? We can take our key from where he did succeed. October is not just art, it is also Marxist theory. If approached as such, there is a great deal we can learn from and discuss about it.
I must admit that the research for this episode became a little like a whirlpool. The further I examined Eisenstein’s ideas, the deeper and more unfamiliar the water around me became. As such, there are notable absences from even the analysis I have provided of October. For example, I have not explained where the film fits in the broader canon of Eisenstein’s work. In this sense and others, my analysis is not complete. What I hope I have been able to provide is an introduction to the film, its history, and the political and artistic questions that arise from it. I will undoubtedly return to Eisenstein in the future. There is a long, difficult and fruitful debate to be had over his work. I, for one, am looking forward to it.
Art, writing, performance and editing by James Bell.
Recording by Alex Bushell.