Soon, popular views of 1917 changed entirely: Unfettered markets seemed natural and inevitable, while Communism appeared to have always been doomed to Leon Trotsky’s “dustbin of history.” There might be challenges to the globalized liberal order, but they would come from Islamism or China’s state capitalism, no longer a discredited Marxism.
Today, as we mark the centenary of the February Revolution — prequel to the November coup of Lenin’s Bolsheviks — history has turned again. China and Russia both deploy symbols of their Communist heritage to strengthen an anti-liberal nationalism; in the West, confidence in free-market capitalism has not recovered from the financial crash of 2008, and new forces of the far right and activist left vie for popularity. In America, the unexpected strength of the independent socialist Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic race, and in Spain, the electoral gains of the new Podemos party, led by a former Communist, are signs of some grass-roots resurgence on the left. In 2015 Britain, Marx and Engels’s 1848 classic, “The Communist Manifesto,” was a best seller.
So did I witness Communism’s last hurrah that day in Moscow, or is a Communism remodeled for the 21st century struggling to be born?
There are hints of an answer in this complex, century-long epic, a narrative arc full of false starts, near-deaths and unpredicted revivals.
Take the life of Semyon Kanatchikov. The son of a former serf, he left rural poverty for a factory job and the thrill of modernity. Energetic and sociable, Kanatchikov set out to improve himself with “The Self-Teacher of Dance and Good Manners” as his guide. Once in Moscow, he joined a socialist discussion circle, and ultimately the Bolshevik party.
Kanatchikov’s experience made him receptive to revolutionary ideas: a keen awareness of the gulf between rich and poor, a sense that an old order…