Conference 2017

'Revolutionaries and Revolutions'

The Cambridge History Forum Conference took place at Selwyn College on Saturday, March 4th. The Conference addressed the theme of “Revolutionaries and Revolutions” with the three lectures exploring “The Marxists’ Model Revolution”, “Russia in 1917” and the “Aftermath and legacy of the Russian Revolution”. The lectures were followed with wider questions stemming from the themes explored, with all three speakers contributing to a stimulating discussion. A most gratifying trend in recent years has been the ever increasing number of sixth form students, and even those in their GCSE years, who now attend the Conference. Thus, it was especially encouraging to see these students contributing so thoughtfully to the forum debate and discussion, which followed. The speakers’ zest in engaging in discussion of the broader conference themes was both enlightening and prompted much reflection in this, the centenary of the Russian revolutions.

Robert Tombs, Emeritus Professor of French History and Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge delivered the first lecture exploring “The Marxists' Model Revolution”, namely the Paris Commune of 1871. Marx presented the Commune as a model for future revolutionaries and consequently judged its achievements in an extremely favourable light. For instance, in his work, “The Civil War in France”, Marx explored what the Commune might have been achieved, and presented its demise as resting on the failure to attack government forces early and seize the Bank of France. However, Professor Tombs drew a sharp distinction between Marx’s theorization of the Commune and historical reality. Many communards wanted to avoid steps which could be deemed too radical, indeed many of their actions were directed by a mixture of morality and pragmatism. For example, very limited use was made of a decree handing over workshops to workers. It was invoked only if workshops were abandoned and rent was paid. Professor Tombs provided a fascinating vignette to further emphasise this point-the red flags made for communards were by a large company of quality upholsterers! Nevertheless, Marx’s view had considerable influence over later revolutionaries, both as an inspiration and as a vital historical link. Lenin saw the Commune as demonstrating the necessity of class warfare; his verdict was it had stopped half way. Subsequently, many French Marxists drew parallels between the communards and the resistance during the Second World War. However, with the decline of the Left, this narrative began to unravel in 1960s. Professor Tombs emphasised the role of Jacques Rougerie’s archival work and telling assessment that the "Commune was dusk, not dawn". Perhaps fundamentally, the Commune was less a step towards the Bolshevik revolution than an attempt to create a democratic system.

In the second lecture, Chris Read, Professorial Fellow in Modern European History at Warwick University, presented an overview of the state of current research on Russia in 1917. Professor Read outlined some of the changing historiographical interests underpinning “Russia’s Great War and Revolution” project, where, surprisingly there have been more submissions exploring the Royal Family, the war and Liberalism, than Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Indeed the Bolshevik Revolution has almost been viewed as an aberration rather than the main event. Professor Read suggested that this perhaps stems from the growth of a number of regional and local studies presenting war and revolution as a continuum of crisis. Perhaps given that so much teaching of this period in Russia is now nationalist and conservative, this is scarcely surprising. However, Professor Read asserted the pre-eminence of 1917 for Russia and emphasised two crucial dimensions of the February revolution, where the state crumbled from below and yet the Tsar also faced pressures from the elites. Professor Read drew a fascinating contemporary parallels here between the collapse of Tsardom and the Arab Spring.

In our final lecture, Dr Jonathan Davis, Senior Lecturer in Russian History at Anglia Ruskin University explored the aftermath and legacy of the Russian revolutions, which laid the foundations of the world’s first supposedly communist state. Dr Davis explored the ideological developments of the Bolshevik revolution up until 1927 and highlighted the subsequent struggle for the meaning of socialism both inside and outside the Soviet Union. It has proved a contradictory legacy – a beacon of hope for some and a source of exploitation for others. Dr Davis provided a fascinating and erudite synthesis of events much to the appreciation of the many sixth form students in attendance who are studying this topic. Tracing a path from the establishment of socialist foundations through to the defeat of the ideals of workers’ power, Dr Davis explored the differing perspectives which were crucial in shaping the direction of the revolution.

As always, thanks go to Selwyn College for their facilities and splendid hospitality. Over a fine lunch, we were able to reflect on what had been a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating event.