On the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this year’s Wowfest promises a literary kick up the backside to those who feel pummeled into submission by a succession of political calamities: Brexit, Trump, and Tory council gains which may be an ominous precursor to the ‘snap’ (can a meticulously timed and deviously calculated strategy really be labeled ‘snap’?) general election. Of course, a bleak outcome is not inevitable if enough socially aware voters get out and do the right thing.
Revolution!, an event which pulled together literary lights including China Miéville, effectively reminded us that fury at the ruling elite is not new. However, and this is why events like this are so essential, such history is often brushed under the carpet for fear of stirring revolutionary hunger in the masses lobotomised by X-Factor and the like. Like the Peterloo Massacre, the story of the Levellers is unlikely to be stumbled across by those not scouring British history for tales of uprisings.
Following a warm welcome, comprehensive introductions, and projected images leaving us in no doubt as to the ethos of the event, Stop The War Coalition’s John Rees launched into this inspirational and bloody tale for the ages. Aggrieved by the tyranny of the Church of England and monarchy, the Levellers were a radical group who formed during the English Civil War, a war which culminated in Charles I being tried by the people for treason. His subsequent execution was unprecedented and a fascinating aspect is the role of the Levellers in disseminating revolutionary messages via the illegal printing of pamphlets and newspapers (their Moderate paper being a kind of mediaeval Morning Star). One could not help but think of the many anti-establishment Facebook groups as being a direct descendent of The Levellers’ petitions and calls for protest. Maybe Prince Philip has retired to avoid the coming storm.
Nearly 300 years later, the events of 1917 Russia again showed that, once invoked, revolutionary spirit can explode into regime-toppling action. Reading from his book October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, genre-crossing author China Miéville detailed this epochal episode with reference to lesser known influential figures such as Nikolay Chernyshevsky. An enthusiastic tale of revolution, it is nonetheless conceded that ‘liberty’s dim light’ was eventually extinguished by the corrupted legacy of Stalinism. However, the world’s first socialist revolution deserves celebration and China Miéville eloquently conveyed this.
Graphic novels need not be the sole preserve of superheroes. Their potent mix of verbal and visual storytelling has the potential to introduce powerful historical figures to a wider public. This potential has been creatively used by Kate Evans in Red Rosa, a biography of German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Aligned with tonight’s theme of reappraising history, we are reminded that revolution is not an exclusively male domain. Using visual examples from her book, Kate Evans spoke with passion about this Polish-Jewish Marxist, a leader of revolutionary struggle in Germany who was assassinated by the authorities for her efforts. Rosa Luxemburg’s omission from mainstream history may be indicative of enduring misogyny or further evidence of airbrushing to erase revolutionary uprisings. Either way, Kate Evans’ discussion was revelatory and Red Rosa deserves to do well.
The subsequent question and answer session raised issues of political leadership with an apparent veiled attack on Jeremy Corbyn by one audience member. With righteous anger, Kate Evans’ response was to condemn the right-wing obsession with leadership. The left should be less dependent on leadership and, as John Rees pointed out following his experiences in Egypt, focus on the process of revolution.
An enlightening evening, then, with current conceptions of rebellion seen through diverse historical lenses. Revolution! was fully booked, but there are always risks of preaching to the converted with a paying self-selecting audience. It would be fantastic if schools and colleges could be brave enough to incorporate events like this into their educational programmes. Maybe Wowfest would consider extending its community work in this direction?