What Happened to Our Dreams? The Spectre of the October Revolution

For many, it is far easier to imagine a natural disaster or a zombie apocalypse destroying all of human life than it is to imagine a world beyond capitalism. We find ourselves in a precarious situation in 2017. Feelings of apprehension, anxiety, depression, loss and a nostalgia for the past, have become normal on the left. What happened to our dreams? How does the Spectre of the October Revolution still haunts us today? 


Much of the coverage of the centenary (1917–2017) of the October (Julian calendar) “Bolshevik” Revolution centers on the historical facts, (re)interpretations, and historical significance of the event that “shook the world.” Yet, we have been told very little about the importance of the event as an “imagined” one. As an event that inspires, haunts and continues to drive individuals and groups towards radical liberation from the systems of oppression that we are embedded within. Likewise, that the October Revolution is simultaneously a historical event which has a material reality in a particular spatio-temporal location in human history while also being an inheritance beyond its historical limitations and confines. The October Revolution of history simply becomes “October,” transcending its historical embeddedness to take on a metaphysical, and I would argue, religious, dimension. 

1917 was a year of experimentation, hope and expectations. Αs Rex A Wade (2017) notes in his article, from the February Revolution to the October Revolution, workers, soldiers, women, peasants, and other classes with differing (counter) revolutionary aspirations were energised politically and socially in ways that had been prohibited under the rule of the Tsar. The history of the October Revolution is well known and subject to differing interpretations depending on the context and ideological position. What is important here is to ask what is meant by inheriting October and how the Spectre of October still haunts us today. 

“The October Revolution led by the great Lenin,” proclaimed Lin Piao “was a turning point in in human history” (Lin Piao's Speech 1967, p 5). Speaking on the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1967, in the midst of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China, Lin Piao reminded those listening and reading that the “dialectics of history” are “irresistible” and that the “world is moving forward.” Chairman Mao Zedong's quotations already affirmed the importance of the October Revolution stating that that it is the “bright common road for the progress of all mankind” which “has changed the whole course of world history” and “opened up wide possibilities for the emancipation of the peoples of the world” (1967). This idea of progress and historical continuity buttressed by a historical determinism and faith in Marxism–Leninism(–Maoism) seems like a blind dogma to us in 2017. Yet, Lin Piao, though addressing the Soviet revisionism of Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, issued a warning saying, “Those who betray the October Revolution can never escape the punishment of history” (Lin Piao's Speech 1967, p 7). 

We find ourselves in a precarious situation in 2017. Feelings of apprehension, anxiety, depression, loss and a nostalgia for the past have become normal on the left. What happened to our dreams? There was once a time when millions of oppressed and toiling peasants and workers, colonised indigenous peoples, and enslaved ethnic and racial groups dreamed of alternative futures, characterised by hopes in unseen and unknowable futures. Yet, this revolutionary hope has given way to a period of cynicism, hopelessness and apathy. Our (collective) dreams have been shattered. For many, it is far easier to imagine some cataclysmic natural disaster or a zombie apocalypse destroying all of human life than it is to imagine a world beyond capitalism. The phrase from the period of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative,” is the dogma of our time. In the age of the Anthropocene, global climate change, massive socio-economic inequality, racism and other oppressive structures are normalised alongside increasing authoritarian nation states built on surveillance, militarised police forces and prisons fed by/feeding (neo)colonialism and (neo)imperialism. There is seemingly no escape. We have arrived at what Francis Fukuyama calls the “end of history.” 

The Greek poet George Seferis writes in “Mythistorema”:

I woke up with this marble head in my hands;

it exhausts my elbow and I don’t know where to put it down.

It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the dream 

so our life became one and it will be very difficult for it to separate again. 

We have woken from the dream of the 20th century with a marble head in our hands. We have inherited October and the subsequent revolutionary projects with their successes and abject failures. Jacques Derrida (1994), writes, “the being of what we are is first of all inheritance, whether we like it or know it or not.” This “to be is to inherit” is a foundational concept for us and, I believe, for the revolutionary struggle. But what does it mean to be haunted by October? 

Do you believe in ghosts? This question is, at first glance, comical and met with instant scepticism and appeals to science. In the United States, the question was timely given the Halloween season that has recently ended. These days, both children and adults are frightened by the phantoms lurking about their neighbourhoods or maybe the apparitions in horror films and television. Yet, the question does not concern our friendly (or horrific) neighbourhood ghosts. The question concerns something more fundamental, yet, something that is immaterial, a so-called “void,” for all of us. Let us start this journey from a simple fact; all of us have lost loved ones. Have you experienced losing someone and then hearing their voice in an old answering machine message? Maybe while rewatching old videos of them as they become animated, dynamic and expressive beings once more. 

What does it mean to listen to the voice of someone who has passed on? Is it not their voice speaking to us? What about the millions of images and video clips of loved ones, comrades, friends and those we do not know, who have passed in the years since we could record their voices, images and actions? We are surrounded by ghosts. When we speak via phone and video chat, are we not transformed into a spectral entity? It is us, but also it is not us. 

What does it mean to be a ghost? We are haunted by all the dead generations that, as Karl Marx says in the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), “[...] weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Think of how we invoke people long dead to justify our present realities, for example, the often repeated phrase regarding “founding fathers,” or appeals to leaders, chairpersons and heroes who help justify and provide continuity for our present realities. Our reality is simultaneously a present wrapped in a past that brings forth all the dead. When Jacques Derrida was asked if he believed in ghosts, he not only acknowledged their existence but claimed that he, too, was a ghost. While I will not speak at length here of ghosts nor hauntology, I will state that I, too, believe in the ghosts as described by Derrida. This short piece is not about what it means to be a ghost but what it means to be with ghosts dreaming of a future beyond our haunted present. 

October is the Spectre haunting our world. Its appearance strikes fear in rulers, aristocrats and plutocrats the world over. Yet, it is more than a ghostly apparition. October is the rupture we long for. It is the dam bursting forth, the possibility of an alternative future. Millions of voices collectively calling out to us from the past. It is impossible to think of a “present” without October. Writing in Spectres of Marx, Derrida notes that Marxism itself is haunted by one of religion's “ghosts,” that of the messianic, the call for “divine” justice, and the breaking of the spell of our “living present.” Alienated, isolated and alone in the abyss, we long for salvific events. 

What does it say to us? What does October mean to us today? It certainly does not call, I would argue, for a repetition of it. Slavoj Žižek (2007) writes that “the proper task is thus to think the tragedy of the October Revolution: to perceive its greatness, its unique emancipatory potential, and, simultaneously the historical necessity of its Stalinist outcome.” Thus, he calls, not for a repetition of Lenin but the Leninist gesture which calls for radically innovative, contextual and, I would argue, heretical ruptures. The 1917 October Revolution in Russia was the very source of inspiration for revolutions and national liberation struggles around the world in the 20th century. Every continent was awakened as millions became conscious of their oppressed and alienated social realities. Yet, October means much more than simply repeating the 20th century. Guerrilla movements in the 21st century, like the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Kurdistan and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas, continue to reassess the failures of the 20th century revolutionary project opened up by October and break out of the nation state paradigm that it (woefully) cemented. October is simultaneously a past, living in the present, and showing us an alternative future. It is the shattering of the haunted present, and the transformation of reality and social relations as such. Yet, it does not constitute an end in itself. 

When we are able to separate eschatology from teleology, we can reclaim a “messianic” without a “messianism,” as Derrida revealed. We can reclaim the freedom to try again and to strive, not for an end, but for an ever unfolding present. It is the millions of voices, images and clips from the past, “the salvoes of the October Revolution,” calling out to us to smash our borders, break out of our prisons, and shatter the statues of the rulers and gods who have physically and mentally imprisoned us. The ghosts of October speak to us in the same way the martyrs at Haymarket Square speak to workers around the world in May. The ghosts of those enslaved, tortured, raped and massacred are with us today, reminding us of the colonial and imperialist realities which still persist. The legacies of the genocide against indigenous peoples around the world continue to haunt all nation states. Our collective past haunts our present. The ghosts of every struggle in history call to us. They are ever-present. October will be a Spectre haunting humanity until the end, when we cease to exist. The 20th century taught us that the future is not determined, nor guaranteed, yet we are called to, as Samuel Beckett writes in Worstward Ho, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

This piece is dedicated to the martyrs George Kasidakos (ELAS-EAM), Nubar Ozanyan (TKP/ML-TİΚΚΟ), Ayşe Deniz Karacagil (MLKP), Ulaş Bayraktaroğlu (BÖG), and all those, known and unknown, who have died in the struggle for liberation and a new world. 


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