The poetry of revolution

10 November 2014
Diane Fieldes

Capitalism thwarts and stunts the creativity of human beings. It robs the mass of the population of control over their own labour, and therefore over production generally. It denies the vast majority of people creative expression in their daily work lives, and this affects all of life. Workers are robbed not just of artistic creativity but even of our potential to be an audience for art.

Yet there is a constant struggle to free humanity’s potential. And there have always been troublesome artists and troublesome art. The contradictions of capitalism mean that it is possible, at least to some extent, for artistic expression to develop in opposition to the dominant trajectory of society. Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Motto” makes the point:

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.

But at high points of struggle, the possibilities of artistic expression expand exponentially. One of the chief aims of socialist revolution, according to the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, is the “awakening of human personality in the masses – who were supposed to possess no personality”.

In 1845 in The German Ideology, Marx and Engels summarised the reasons social revolution is necessary: “not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because only in a revolution can the class overthrowing it succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.

The first reason is obvious: ruling classes do not volunteer to depart. The second goes to the heart of revolutionary socialism: the idea that “the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself”. Under capitalism, workers’ daily experience of subordination limits us in a thousand different ways. Revolutionary situations, with their demonstration of workers’ collective power, transform consciousness as well as laying the foundations for a new form of society in which all social, economic and political life is based on mass decision making and control.

Filming the Russian Revolution

The movies directed by Sergei Eisenstein during the 1920s provide much of the defining imagery of the Russian Revolution. According to cinema theorist Peter Wollen, the extraordinary upheavals of the 1917 revolution, when Eisenstein was 19, brought his interest in art to fruition:

“He was not prepared for the overthrow of the existing order of society, the collapse of his ideology and the dissolution of his family … The revolution destroyed him, smashed the co-ordinates of his life, but it also gave him the opportunity to produce himself anew … [H]e was compelled to become an intellectual, to construct for himself a new world-view, a new ideological conception both of society and art … [W]e cannot separate the ideas which he developed from the matrix in which they were formed, the matrix of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

None of this happened overnight. Eisenstein’s childhood and youth (he was born in 1898) were steeped in accounts of the 1905 Revolution, and in particular “Bloody Sunday”, when troops opened fire upon a peaceful demonstration at the tsar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Because of “the wild outburst of reaction and repression”, he wrote, “the brutality in my pictures is indissolubly tied up with the theme of social injustice, and revolt against it”.

Anna Chen, reviewing the centenary edition of his films, says: “Eisenstein developed his cinematographic theory which he would put into practice in making his films. Not only should there be conflict between shots, there should also be conflict within the frame at every level … Eisenstein was building a cinematic art with a painter’s eye and the method of an engineer. In him, music, literature, painting and science all converged.”

Eisenstein’s studies at the Institute of Civil Engineering in Petrograd were ended by the 1917 revolution. Any thoughts of renewing them were rapidly eclipsed by the unleashing of mass creativity that followed. In the revolutionary years Eisenstein spent time in the Petrograd militia, as a cartoonist for the Petersburgskaya Gazeta, decorating the agitprop trains leaving for the front, and as an engineer in the Red Army during the civil war to defend the revolution.

His three great films about the Russian Revolution (Strike, The Battleship Potemkin and October) were all made between 1924 and 1928, before Stalin had consolidated his power and thereby gained an iron grip on the arts (and everything else). The combined high point of both revolutionary politics and art is reflected in those films, so much so that in Germany the armed forces were forbidden to see Potemkin for fear of mutiny. So too were audiences in Pennsylvania in the US, on the grounds that it gave sailors “a blueprint as to how to conduct a mutiny”. In France the authorities burnt all copies they could find, and it was banned in Britain until 1954.

Eisenstein’s legacy is inseparable from the Russian Revolution, without which we might never have heard of him. He was at his most inventive and innovative during the initial throes of the revolution, in unprecedented conditions of mass creative liberation. Notably, his later films are failures, artistically as well as politically, turgid and hackneyed products of the Stalinist counter-revolution.

There is nothing romanticised about this. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin in 1919 was scathing of those who “imagined socialism could be built by men of a new type, that first they would train good, pure and splendidly educated people, and these would build socialism”. Instead, he argued, “we want to build socialism with the aid of those men and women who grew up under capitalism, were depraved and corrupted by capitalism, but steeled for the struggle by capitalism …

“[R]evolutionary periods … are distinguished by wider, richer, more deliberate, more methodical, more systematic, more courageous and more vivid making of history than periods of philistine … reformist progress … in short, when the intellect and reason of millions of downtrodden people awaken not only to read books, but for action, vital human action, to make history.”

‘Imagination in power’, France 1968

In May 1968, frustration over unemployment and poverty under the French conservative government of general Charles de Gaulle boiled over on the campuses, starting with the Sorbonne, where student expectations of their education and future working lives were being dashed. Student uprisings eventually escalated to a national general strike involving millions of workers.

This challenge to capitalism sparked a revolutionary change in both popular and high culture.

Footballers occupied the national headquarters of the French Football Federation, erecting a red flag and a sign saying “football for the footballers” once they had ejected the general secretary. Three hundred workers at the Folies Bergère (dancers, stage hands and dressing room staff) struck and occupied the theatre. Orchestras went on strike, the Cannes Film Festival was cancelled, the Odeon theatre was occupied and turned into a permanent forum under the slogan, “When the National Assembly becomes a bourgeois theatre, all bourgeois theatres must become national assemblies.”

Significantly, the movement began to create its own culture. Striking television workers, from technicians to journalists, produced films to be shown at political meetings. Art students established Atelier Populaire (the Popular Workshop), which produced 100,000 copies of 350 different posters.

In solidarity with the students at the Sorbonne, art students at l’Ecole des Beaux Arts also went on strike, occupying the studios and print workshops. These worked 24 hours a day producing a mass of posters and wall newspapers that were then pasted up in the streets in support of the revolt in the workplaces. As art erupted in the public sphere, it was not only the students who cried out “All power to the imagination!” Striking workers became part of the workshops’ artistic debates and production.

The posters were distributed all over Paris. Reflections of the struggle were on the streets almost instantly. Art theorist Kristin Ross points out the politics of the simple, direct artistic style adopted by the workshops: “Only the most ‘immediate’ of artistic techniques … could keep up with the speed of [this] event … To say this is … to point out how much politics was exerting a magnetic pull on culture, yanking it out of its specific and specialised realm.”

The original intent had been for the posters to be sold to raise money for the revolutionary movements. Yet before they could get to the gallery, the copies were taken from the arms of the student carrying them and plastered on the first available wall.

Some posters spoke against the government-regulated communication network, ORTF (Office de Radio Télévision Français) and drew attention to the false information being disseminated – and the struggle by the workers there. They stood against racism. Others exposed the otherwise hidden process of exploitation. They recognised workers’ collective power. They noted the repressive role of the police for capitalism.

Chilean murals 1970-73

In Chile’s 1970 election campaign, it was said that the National Party’s Jorge Alessandri had the press, the elite and the US embassy; Christian Democrat Radomiro Tomic had the government apparatus, the church and the party faithful; but Popular Unity’s Salvador Allende had the walls, streets and slums.

Textile worker Alma Gallegos said of the election of Allende, “My husband came looking for me … and we went out together to turn things upside down.” They were not alone in going beyond the election. “It was like a carnival.” The workers’ own struggles were the precondition for revolution from below, creating a dramatic change in the workers’ view of themselves, their capacity and power.

This awakening also involved all kinds of artistic expression. Among the most original were the groups of mural artists. Street art became a fundamental aspect of political broadcast.

One example was the Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP) which had been founded in 1968 and named itself after a young communist activist murdered in 1946 during a demonstration. In the early 1970s, they coloured the walls of Santiago and other cities with images that evoked the struggles and hopes of those engaged in changing society.

Most BRP brigadistas were young students or workers aged 14 to 17. They developed a method of painting in bold, solid colours. Partly this came from the need to work quickly, partly from the collective nature of the work, done by teams of tracers, backgrounders, fill-inners and outliners, and partly it reflected the boldness of their themes. Like their method of painting, funding for the BRP was grassroots, from unions, party members and workers.

Artistic expression bloomed inside the factory walls as well. The Plaza Juan Yarur at the front of the Yarur textile factory was dominated by the marble statue of the founder of the firm. The workers took over their workplace in 1971. Peter Winn, author of Weavers of revolution: the Yarur workers and Chile’s road to socialism, related how they “transformed it into a stage set, whose backdrop was the factory walls, placarded with slogans and drawings befitting the revolutionary theatre in which they were all participants: ‘YARUR! Don’t boycott the government!’ ‘We want socialisation!’ Others lampooned [current owner] Amador Yarur or proclaimed the workers’ desire for ‘an end to exploitation’.” The workers made a new sign for the factory entrance, which they renamed: “Ex-Yarur. Territory Free of Exploitation”.

A worker cartoon showed a defeated Yarur, peering into the factory over a wall on which LIBERATION has been painted, saying sadly to himself: “And to think that all of this … (sniff) was … (sniff) mine.”

One sign of the significance of the revolutionary murals is what happened to them after the 11 September 1973 military coup to crush the working class. The surrealist painter Roberto Matta had painted a 25 by 4 metre mural entitled “El Primer Gol del Pueblo Chileno” (“The First Goal of the Chilean People”) with the Ramona Parra Brigade. It was painted over with 16 coats of paint by the Pinochet regime, part of what the military described candidly as limpieza de cabezas – brain-washing.

Freedom songs in South Africa

As the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony attests, the long struggle against apartheid generated a defiant musical soundtrack.

Vuyisile Mini, an ANC militant, trade union activist and well-known composer of freedom songs, was hanged by the apartheid regime in 1964. Mini was one of the first to use catchy tunes that concealed their threatening messages through cheerful melodies and vernacular languages.

Sophie Mgcina, a famous South African vocalist and actor, recalls the irony of singing in an African language in front of white troops: “They used to clap hands … ‘Oh these Blacks can sing so nice!’ And they clap their hands and we sing ‘We will shoot you, we will kill you’.” Mini’s songs (and their popularity) captured a shift in the struggle in the 1950s toward militant self-assertion.

The Soweto uprising of 1976 ended all hope of obtaining liberation through passive resistance. More than 15,000 school children rioted in response to a government decree that Afrikaans (the language of the oppressors) would be used as a medium of instruction in Black schools. The regime shot them down. But at the same time, the power that would eventually destroy apartheid, the Black working class, was organising, radicalising and rising to its feet.

In the struggle to resist oppression and exploitation, performance played an important role, offering a vehicle for disguising subversive messages and for organising in plain sight.

The artistic outgrowth of the struggle occurred not only on protest marches but also in the workplaces as Black workers began to exercise their power. The musical features of so many of the freedom songs – call and response, repetition and embodied rhythm – more and more reflected the rhythms of the workplace, and the need to organise against the bosses when to do so could mean sacking, jail or even death.

Tsepo Mokone left South Africa as a cast member of Ipi Ntombi, a South African musical that played in the US. He had previously worked in the mines, and explained how performance played a role in addressing South Africa’s exploitative working conditions. For example, the chant workers used, “Abelungu”, lambasted their white bosses for routinised indignities – such as referring to workers not by their names but with the generic designation, Jim. “Whites are damned, they call us Jim”, the chant lyrics proclaim.

Miners expressed their grievances through gumboot dances. While these practices were framed for bosses and tourists as recreational entertainment, they organised political action, so that “by the time they wrap up for the day, [workers] know what to do”. Workers took advantage of the recreational avenues available to them to organise even while under the scrutiny of their bosses.

We rarely think of art as threatening. But an important new combination of dance and song, known as the toyi-toyi, came to characterise every strike and demonstration in the final years of apartheid. Retired riot policemen tell of their fear when facing thousands of weapon-waving, singing, dancing and striking Black South Africans in this menacing toyi-toyi march for freedom.


Revolutionary situations involve, seemingly without warning, working class people performing tasks and assuming responsibilities from which capitalist society previously excluded them. Therefore the examples given above of the generation of new art and new artists in the course of struggle are typical rather than exceptional.

In the words of Colin Barker, who has written so movingly about the “festival of the oppressed” that was the Polish workers’ uprising against Stalinism in 1980-81, these revolutionary rehearsals show that mass uprising is “the indispensable condition of major social advance. Its transformations of consciousness, power, social relations, imagination, are impossible except through such developments.

“For consciousness is inseparable from everyday social practice. New languages, symbols, artistic forms are adopted to express the new conditions; the flourishing of posters, symbols, newspapers, leaflets, badges and jokes bears witness to the profound shifts going on in the consciousness of millions.”

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.