Image: Chimneys plate, part of the 1917 centenary collection.
1985. Thatcherism reigned triumphant. The Miners’ Strike was coming to a sorry end. Reagan in the White House, the second Cold War dominating what remained of international relations. Curious, then, that the Crafts Council of England and Wales should choose to open the year with an exhibition of Soviet textiles, fashion and ceramics 1917-1935, Art into Production.
In 2017 there has been a whole host of Russian Revolution centenary exhibitions, conferences, TV specials and more. But in 1985? The extraordinary richness of the art was however enough to reverse the pessimism that leftist visitors to the exhibition like myself were suffering from as any prospect of a progressive, let alone a socialist, politics receded. As the emotional downturn of opportunities for change in turn created bitter divisions in and around a Left in retreat.
How could a dash of post-1917 art impact upon this? In the beautifully produced exhibition catalogue, there were some lines extracted from Komsomol’skaya Pravda, the newspaper of the Young Communist League, 28th April 1928 which I’ve been reminded of as the 1917 centenary fast approached, with a resurgent Corbynite Left:
“We must not accept this ‘non-resistance’. The cultural revolution, like the bugler’s trumpet, is summoning for examination and revaluation everything which mobilises or poisons our consciousness, our will and our readiness for battle!”
So far. So familiar. The over-familiar instrumentalism of almost all versions of socialist, and communist too, cultural politics. But then the extract took a less predictable turn:
“In this ‘parade’ of objects there are no non-combatants – nor can there be! Plates and cups, ie things we see daily, several times a day, which can do their bit for the organising of consciousness – these occupy an important place.”
Back in 1985, this wasn’t the familiar socialist fare I was used to (despite a susceptibility to a a workerist ‘prolecult’ tendency). But the colourful, often highly feminised, designs throughout the exhibition indicated something different. What the young communists of 1928 were mapping out was a cultural politics that was both all-embracing and highly practical. Pluralist and pre-figurative, you might say. And they weren’t going to put up with any naysayers and feet draggers either:
“We demand that a plate should fulfil its social function. We demand that the role of everyday objects should not be forgotten by our young specialist artists and the bodies in charge of our industry.”
It is easy to mock the idealism but the boldly radical ambition is invaluable. This is what Art into Production all those years ago highlighted and I’ve never forgotten it. More recently Owen Hatherley’s peerless book Landscapes of Communism does something similar via the architecture of the Soviet era. As does poet Rosy Carrick’s stunning reading of Mayakovsky’s epic poem Lenin. And cartoonist Tim Sanders’ imaginative depiction of the events of October 1917 via the subversive idiom of a graphic novel, Russia’s Red Year.
All three sit outside the orthodoxy of an establishment culture that treats the Russian Revolution purely as an historical event. They also resist the tendency on parts of the Left to divorce their political interpretation of the revolution from a broader understanding of the heady idealism 1917 inspired but could never entirely discipline to its own ends.
Such artistic responses are thus welcome additions to the centenary celebrations – and, I’d suggest, also an approach to understanding the Russian Revolution that can be traced back to those young Communists of 1928 exhorting the production of socialist plates, cups and saucers.
Also coinciding with the centenary has been the release of Armando Iannucci’s blockbuster comedy The Death of Stalin. The man behind the brilliantly funny The Thick of It which skewered the Blairite world of spin and soundbites with brutal wit has turned to an era that the film’s posters mischievously describe as ‘a comedy of terrors’. Only the most po-faced would stifle the laughs as one wisecrack after another demolishes what Stalinism had turned Soviet Russia into. But the film ends up being satirical for the sake of a cheap laugh. The cynicism of pointlessness narrows the prospects for change and all we are left with is the motto ‘who cares, who wins’. This is what the likes of Iannucci, Private Eye and Have I Got News for You thrive on, a manufactured anti-politics with the assumption that everybody is as bad as each other and never mind causes or consequences. The political clowning of Boris Johnson becomes the natural expression of all this, a rebel without a cause except his own personal advancement. Oh c’mon he’s only having a laugh, and what’s the harm in that. £350m for the NHS thanks to #Brexit has at last partly put paid to that sorry myth.
So instead of rollicking in the cinema aisles as one Death of Stalin joke piles into another I prefer instead the necessity of having some smashing plates, mugs and saucers. Framed by the utopian idealism for a better world than the one that Russians had endured in the years preceding 1917, visualising via the most vivid combination of imagination, originality and clash of colours, the prospect of constructing a new society. When that hopeful vision is absent then our capacity to imagine what change might look like lacks something vital too. A sentiment worth preserving via some tasty antique ceramics. Not trapped by the past - that way lies dogma and cultural conservatism. But there is something wrong too with the ahistorical version of modernity underpinning 1990s Blairism. The idea that if it’s old it must be crap - the idea, therefore, that the past could therefore never inspire the present towards changing the future.
Ideals can be given practical expression via their lived presence in the everyday. Pasokification across Europe has meant social democracy in retreat. But this time it is accompanied by an insurgent, popular Left that is seeking to transcend a wholesale surrender to neoliberalism. The advances are patchy and incomplete, not remotely revolutionary according to the 1917 model - but decidedly radical and seeking a decisive rupture with the existing system of ideas. In 2017 that’s more than enough for me.
So where do the plates, mugs and cups of 1917 fit in to all of this? Not to merchandise but to politicise. The revolutionary ceramics, and the process of production the Young Communists demanded is entirely different from the naff trinkets and trifles emblazoned with Jeremy Corbyn’s name and face that Labour was flogging at party conference (no doubt on the stocking-filler list for a fair few Corbynite Christmas treats too). Harmless fun? Well, sort of (and to declare an interest yes Philosophy Football has produced its own COR 8YN T-shirt). But if that is the scale of our imagination and productive capacity it just shows how far we still have to go to get anywhere close to those 1917 plates. What might a 2017 version look like, fired up and framed by The Corbyn Effect? That’s the kind of question I’d like to hear both being asked, and answered with practical output. And in that process of originality and production creating a great variety of means to identify with a politics that can effect a wholesale shift in the balance of forces from those few, to our many. Now that’s what I call politics.
The 1917 centenary plates collection reproducing original Soviet designs is available from www.philosophyfootball.com