The impact of 1917 on global culture is as strong as ever, says MIKE QUILLE
THE REVOLUTION not only liberated the Russian population politically and economically, it also gave a massive boost to the arts and culture.
There was a creative explosion in the visual arts, film, theatre, ballet, poetry, literature and music and in sport and fashion, accompanied by a massive improvement in working people’s access to, and participation in, the arts and other cultural activities.
Progressive educational policies were linked to bold, imaginative attempts to connect the masses to culture, an example being the agit-trains and agit-boats carrying the political art of Vladimir Mayakovsky, El Lissitsky and Kasimir Malevich to hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants.
There was a huge reverberating effect internationally. Until 1917, the global dissemination of art and culture had always accompanied and complemented imperialism.
But the revolution strengthened radical political opposition globally, enabling indigenous and anti-colonial traditions to flower and make stronger international connections.
In writing, art and music the list of cultural workers across the world influenced by revolutionary ideals is virtually endless.
In film, the innovations of Sergei Eisenstein and others laid the foundations of world cinema and they went on to influence John Ford, Orson Welles, the Italian neorealists, Alfred Hitchcock and, more recently, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
In Britain, the revolution inspired the leftist poetry movement in the 1930s led by WH Auden, Louis Macneice, Stephen Spender and others. This literary movement itself influenced musicians and composers like Auden’s friend Benjamin Britten.
It spread also to documentary makers like the GPO Film Unit and its successors, who started a fine tradition of compassionate and often overtly socialist documentaries on the living conditions of the British people.
This tradition continued in the “kitchen-sink” dramas in 1950s theatre and later in TV dramas such as the Wednesday Play and the exemplary work of film director Ken Loach, right up to his most recent I, Daniel Blake.
The large increase in state support for the arts by post-war Labour governments was heavily influenced by the Soviet example and it had an enormous impact on working-class access to cultural activities.
The establishment of workers’ film societies in Britain brought quality cinema closer to the masses and Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl brought revolutionary ideals into both popular people’s theatres and folk music clubs.
Radical workers’ theatre in the rest of Europe and the US were also energised by the democratising influence of the revolution and there was even a workers’ radio movement in Europe.
A marker of the revolution’s influence is the cultural reaction against it throughout the 20th century — the CIA’s sponsorship of abstract art and the anti-communist blacklisting practices in Hollywood being two examples.
That prejudice continues. The US and British film industries do not promote genres like social realism which can tell the truth about capitalist exploitation and oppression. Instead, they churn out escapist fantasy, sentimental comedy and violent, macho melodramas.
This year the anti-communism evident in arts events and media coverage of the revolution was epitomised by the exhibition of post-revolutionary Russian art at the Royal Academy.
Strikingly reactionary, its openly hostile perspective downplayed, denied or derided links between the progressive politics of the revolution and the marvellously energetic and powerful art that it inspired.
Even so, the revolution has increased our ability to envisage and realise better alternatives to the world we live in.
As the poet William Blake and others recognised, artistic and cultural activities are fundamentally social and communal activities, acts of powerful, rousing and empathic communication which develop human solidarity.
Cultural activities can overcome and break down barriers between humans, including the deepest ones like the fundamental class divisions of human societies since ancient times.
The revolution strengthened the capacity and confidence of art and artists, and the general public, to overcome these class divisions and creatively imagine radically different alternatives to the world.
In the current cultural struggles that we face to democratise culture, to make it work for the benefit of the many and not the few, the example of the Russian revolution a beacon of inspiration.
It shows that things don’t have to be the way they are, that tomorrow may not be the same. For a century, across the globe and across all areas of human cultural and artistic activity, the revolution has inspired visions of how the world could be made better.
Ultimately, the most lasting positive influence of the revolution lies not just in our ability to understand and enjoy the legacy of 1917 but to make changes in the here and now.
That means replacing the culture, politics and economics of capitalism with a socialist alternative.
Only then will we have fulfilled the promise of the 1917 Russian Revolution.