We, the Orphans of October
It’s November 7, 1987. Along with hundreds, if not thousands, of other children I am in the main hall of Moscow’s Revolution Museum, since renamed State Central Museum of the Contemporary History of Russia. On its seventieth anniversary, the Revolution of 1917 had been already thoroughly museumized, even as Mikhail Gorbachev was initiating a series of reforms intended to revive its legacy and shake off decades of bureaucratic torpor. His perestroika, translatable as reconstruction, envisioned a re-revolutionizing of society and a renewal of the impulse behind the Red October.
At the museum, we were awaiting the beginning of the ceremony marking our induction into Oktyabryata, literally small October’ites, the children of October. That was the first step in the ladder leading to full-fledged membership in the Communist Party and passing from Oktyabryata through Pioneers to Communist Soviet Youths (Komsomol). With plenty of excitement and anticipation in the air, the atmosphere was nonetheless solemn. From a strict-looking woman with long gray hair pulled into an imposing bun, we received a lengthy lecture on the honor and responsibility of being faithful to Lenin’s heritage and the importance of collaborative work in groups of five, corresponding to the five points of the Oktyabryonok star.
It would be more accurate to describe us—and by us I mean both the seven- or eight-year-olds who, like me, joined the ranks of the Communist children’s organization and all those living today, one hundred years after the Revolution—not as the children but as the orphans of October. First, we are orphaned in time. Thanks to a two-week difference between the old manner of counting days and the new, which resulted from the implementation of the Gregorian calendar in Soviet Russia, the October 25th Revolution is celebrated on November 7th, “a red day in the calendar” as a popular poem dubs it. An October event is not in October; it dislodges itself from the linear succession of time and stands out in its non-identity. How to follow it, if it does not coincide with itself? How to catch up with it, or to be born of it, if it runs ahead or behind itself?
Second, we are the orphans of October because we deny or are unaware of our filiation. The Russian Revolution of 1917 is generally seen, both inside Russia and outside its boundaries, as a historical aberration, an unfortunate detour on the path of the country’s development from a nearly feudal agrarian mode of production to a full-fledged capitalist regime. Whatever the faults (not to mention the nightmares: the expression orphans of October originally applied to the children of people killed in Stalin’s bloody purges of the 1930s) of “the morning after” this event, it voiced the need for real equality, as opposed to the demand of formal equality the French Revolution spearheaded. And that need has not found fulfilment. On the contrary, it is more and more frustrated now that the US and the West as a whole are entering a new Gilded Age of abyssal economic disparities between the richest few and everyone else. Silencing the call for substantive equality that resounded around the world in 1917, precisely when “the world” was engulfed in the First World War, we disinherit ourselves from a revolutionary legacy and become its orphans.
In the meanwhile, at the Revolution Museum, I received a small pin with a red star featuring the image of a cherub-faced, blond and curly child (the young Vladimir Ul’yanov, not yet known by his revolutionary name, Lenin) at its center. Henceforth, this was a badge to be worn daily on my indigo-colored school uniform. It is easy to criticize the idolatry and the cult of personality the star of Oktyabryata promoted. But from which standpoint are we, the orphans of October, passing such a judgment?
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s, our global orphanage (rather than a global village) has disavowed the revolutionary drive in the name of neoliberalism and its apparent triumph. Since then, on the hundredth’ anniversary of the October Revolution, we are faced with a choice between neofascism and parochialism, on the one hand, and technocracy, as a more ideologically modest heir to neoliberalism, on the other. This disastrous situation is the outcome, whether direct or not, of the revolutionary failure and, at the same time, of our failure to heed the demand that gave the revolution its impetus. Caught between two terrible options, the one infinitely mirroring and feeding off the other, stuck between neofascism and neo-neoliberalism, we are still living through the fiasco of the Russian Revolution and suffering in the absence of the third (and the only acceptable) alternative of neocommunism.
When the ceremony at the Revolution Museum drew to a close, everyone hurried to join the Revolution Parade. As we passed through the Red Square, Gorbachev and members of the Politburo waived from the grandstand of Lenin’s Mausoleum. Above the embalmed, museumized body of the leader of the October Revolution seventy years to the day after it happened, the reform-minded Party Chairman was bent on reinvigorating the political and economic system that, in its institutional form, had embalmed its very raison d’être.
We, the orphans of October, should be also fed up with leaning over and mourning the fragmented corpse of the left. What is required now, thirty years later, is a worldwide perestroika—of the shattered and defeated left, to be sure, but also of the theoretical and practical meaning of the world, of world-order, and of being worldwide. A good place to start is by revisiting the words of the French L’Internationale, lost in the standard English translations: “Foule esclave, debout, debout / Le monde va changer de base / Nous ne sommes rien, soyons tout” (“Stand up, stand up, you enslaved masses / The foundations of the world will change / Let us, who are nothing, be everything.”) Forget “another world is possible” that, by means of abstract possibility, prevents actual and necessary change! The world has already changed its foundations, and it is up to the left to realize this and to act accordingly.