In light of recent events, I have been looking back at history in order to decode our current troubles. And while doing so, I thought it would be vitally important to look back on the revolutionary events which plagued Russia in 1917. These events of Bolshevik rage undoubtedly propelled the former Russian Empire into a spate of confusion and malcontent – feelings not too dissimilar from our own societal mood. Perhaps it’s not outlandish to suggest that the revolutionaries’ real driving forces and tactics aren’t as foreign to us as one might initially assume.
The preliminary goals set by the socialist revolutionaries – namely the abolition of the Tsarist autocracy and the destruction of traditional Russian hierarchy – had been achieved at the beginning of 1917, culminating in the February abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Now, with a provisional government, Russia’s fate had to be decided by a motley bunch of revolutionaries, moderate socialists, and liberals.
Vladimir Lenin, as the head Bolshevik on return from exile, had somewhat cut out a celebrity figure for himself; he was retrospectively regarded as a key influence in the auspicious February revolution after his April Theses were circulated. Such was the strength of his celebrity that he managed to garner enough support to bring about the downfall of the adolescent provisional government that October. This wasn’t easy-won, though. A keen observer of Marxist thought and history, Lenin was famously passionate in his beliefs – and would’ve fought to the death for them. Those familiar with his tale will know how it all transpired, and one can see the trails of later despotism littered throughout Russia’s transformative period.
Lenin helped the Bolsheviks to power not only with a concoction of support and passion, but with a war of words; or perhaps, more appropriately, a war on words. For it was the Bolshevik movement that reshaped popular language through their fierce, sometimes amorphous, rhetoric. Lenin and his acolytes began painting friends & foes as “counter-revolutionaries”, meanwhile decrying the “imperial” and “bourgeois” politics of their Leftist contemporaries. He even found an opportune moment to disband the Socialist Revolutionary Central Committee in 1920, after charging members with the crime of collusion with undesirable forces; the counter-revolutionaries were sometimes seen as the worst evil of all in the face of Lenin’s socialist project. Through a mere application of words, members of the Central Committee were arrested and party leader Viktor Chernov was forced to flee. History often presents itself as a vindication of the idea that language is powerful, as it does here.
Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s oppositional friend (leftist infighting often results in these abnormalities) and leader of the Mensheviks, was forced to engage in this sort of conflict, too. Bolshevik discourse was corrosive enough to unharmoniously grind all parts of the socialist machine against one another. John Reed, in his anecdotal account of the revolution in Ten Days That Shook the World, paints a picture of this conflict, after a bloody encounter between rival factions in November 1917:
In the great hall, Trotsky recounted the events of the day.
‘We offered the Vladimir yunkers a chance to surrender,’ he said. ‘We wanted to settle matters without bloodshed. But now that blood has been spilled there is only one way pitiless struggle. It would be childish to think we could win by any other means.’
One salient way in which people see this period in Russian history is that it is absorbed in superlatives and rhetorical slurs. The use of words like “imperial”, “bourgeois” and “counter-revolutionary” were all employed to tactically obliterate certain conversations; evidently Lenin didn’t only use the Cheka to keep dissent in check. The above passage illustrates that the likes of Trotsky (who was charged as a counter-revolutionary himself) also engaged in this game. “Yunkers”, a term which was traditionally used to describe voluntary military personnel in Russia, was employed as a ubiquitous counter-slur by Trotskyites against Lenin’s forces. The implication of this was, I think, to paint Lenin’s forces as establishment figures. Trotsky himself would in fact derive his rhetoric from the same language that Lenin spoke; Newspeak.
Most people have familiarised themselves with the concept of Newspeak from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. The novel is highly regarded for many reasons. And it is not only commended for its literary prowess, it provides prescient criticisms of totalitarian structures, which sometimes read like prophecy as well as admonition. Newspeak was Orwell’s way of showing us how political and economic situations can change after language does. It destroys all chance of nuanced discussion, and it restricts the way we think through language. Whether Orwell intended this to be a criticism of the Left – of which the socialist titan had many – or indeed a criticism of Lenin and the Soviet Union specifically, I do not know. But one shouldn’t miss the opportunity to draw a link.
Lenin’s Newspeak was formed by the same totalitarian urge which shaped his entire career. He knew that if he could simply paint figures as “counter-revolutionary” they were, in effect, banished. If one is seen as a “counter-revolutionary” or a member of the “bourgeoisie”, they were beyond the pale: they didn’t get to take part in the discussion. A “counter-revolutionary” doesn’t have nuanced and meaningful disagreements with those with hegemonic power, they’re trying to undo the current revolutionary moment. This creation of a narrow apparition of ideological positions was and is effective in controlling opposition.
The Left is accustomed to this form of language. It is important for them to maintain control. Our current moments are defined by such cultural inequities – why else are we currently observing an ongoing culture war which is fought on the grounds of speech and ideology? “Cancel culture” – that is, a cultural environment which accepts the banning or repression of an individual whose thoughts aren’t approved – is permeating throughout modern public life, and is fought on the very same ground that Newspeak finds fertile.
This realm of cancellation, offense, selective speech and ideological warfare creates a black and white game, where nuance is confined to the sidelines. Take the recent dialogues which the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked – everything has turned into a vicious dialogue of oppression and exploitation. We see this sort of reductive politics take form across the globe: in Britain, the word, “Empire” is synonymously interchanged with exploitation. Capitalism? That’s the consciously racist system that exploits black people – rather than what it substantively is: an economic system based on private exchange, the accruement of capital and free markets. Adopting this approach to language gives you a distinct advantage over your opponents: your opponents don’t even have a voice in the first place. If capitalism is wholly exploitative and evil, there is no chance of a sane person defending it, and so then its defenders must be smeared. Here lies the twin head of Newspeak: not only does it limit dialogue on particular issues, but it actively changes definitions as well.
It is hard to say where all of this began. Some might trace the intellectual history of cancel culture and woke politics back to Antonio Gramsci, whose conception of “cultural revolution” drove revolutionary Marxism away from its traditional materialist dogma and into the cultural sphere. While Gramsci’s influence is greater than some might initially fear, I think it is the practicalities of politics which paint more of this picture – to the degree that particular political causes lend themselves to totalitarian thought.
Cancel culture is a totalitarian movement: it is a tyranny of the mind and a movement of Newspeak. Without the concept of Newspeak, we wouldn’t understand cancel culture. Through Newspeak, censorship becomes necessary, as it decides what is acceptable and what is up for debate. It is a practice seen throughout modern history, from the smears of Joseph De Maistre following his opposition to the revolutionary moments of 18th century France, to Lenin’s cancellation of Chernov in the 1920’s. This very same malignant force is attempting to reshape our language and discourse, from gender to race. It is only a matter of time before we discover whether we will be consigned the fate of Lenin’s foes.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
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