One Hundred Years, “We” Past and Present

Against the Current, No. 193, March/April 2018

Sam Friedman

STEVE BLOOM’S EXCELLENT and highly-readable One Hundred Years tells the story of the Russian Revolution and its degeneration in the classical form of epic poetry. It is available via and also posted on the Solidarity website at

As a poet and as a revolutionary, I wish I could have thought to write such a poem — and that I had Steve’s talent to do it so well. Steve’s inspired technique was to tell the history of 1917, and its later degeneration and negation via counterrevolution, in words he presents as spoken by the revolutionary people.

His main character, the revolutionary people, is framed as a “We” that acts as narrator, commentator and poetic voice. This “We” tells the epic of misery, struggle, partial victory, thinking through the need for soviet power, more struggle, more complete victory, mistakes, degeneration and counterrevolution in simple but poetic language.

Making “We” the speaker works within while partially inverting the conventions of the classic chorus of Greek tragedy. Contrasting with the background mockery that some Greek dramatists made of it, and the semi-wise voicers of what Gramsci would call “common sense” that was another role of the chorus, in Steve’s poem the chorus becomes the hero/narrator that makes the Revolution.

This method empowers this poem and artistically embodies the fundamental truth of revolution — that the people speak, think, decide and act.

And yet — this “We” that Steve evokes also embodies the political weakness of the current left and the current working class. One strength of this poem, as I see it (not knowing whether Steve was aware of this), is that its very limitations may lead the reader to think about some fundamental issues of politics and of our understanding of revolutions.

The issue here is that the We remains somewhat abstract. As Steve edited this poem with a little help from his friends, I sensed at first reading of his draft that the “We” was the heart of the poem but not yet sufficient for the weight it had to bear.(1)

Steve took this to heart when I suggested it to him, and modified and strengthened his poem accordingly. Nonetheless, the “We” still seems to remain abstract in some critical parts of the poem. This is probably not Steve’s fault but rather that of history. Why do I say that?

The Revolutionary Subject-Object

The question of the “We” is in many ways the core of Marxism. Lukacs (in History and Class Consciousness) expressed this as “the identical subject-object” of historical change. In the context of the Russian Revolution — or of the revolution(s) we all hope to see in the future — this is the issue of how history and experience (activity) led not only to the uprising of February 1917, but to “Our” remarkable creations of those days — the Soviets and factory councils.

The poignancy of this point is underlined by the fact that the more recent revolutionary overthrows of political regimes by enraged peoples in Argentina, in the Arab Spring, and in Ukraine did not create such soviets and councils on a large scale (except to a limited extent in the Argentine factory occupations), and were never able to seriously challenge ruling-class power.(2)

By way of contrast, when the revolutionary “We” created the Paris Commune, the soviets, or Solidarnosc in 1981, “We” created organs with which to think for ourselves, to take actions for ourselves — and to learn from these actions. In Paris 1871 and Russia 1917 they became the organs through which “We” took power.

In the process of building the Commune and the Soviets, and then in the ensuing struggles, the working class formed a “We” out of many strands of experience and different specific needs. This “We,” then, became the subject-object of historical learning and transformation.

In future uprisings, as “We” create them, “We” need to incorporate all of our experiences, problems and hopes — the pain of leaving sick children home alone because the boss insists we come to work, the agonies of the front line during a war, or seeing a friend’s hand crushed in an accident on the job, the humiliation of being berated, arrested or beaten by cops, and the joys of striking, of debating how to proceed, of finding time to fall in love — in building these new organizations.

This is the essence of our task when the uprising begins and for weeks thereafter. It creates the conditions where we can create a “We” that can begin to think about and then to act to seize power at the workplace, the neighborhood, the nation or the world. Our new organization can then begin to think about itself (together with the “We”) as a form that can supplant capital and make a sustainable world children can live in.

In recent years, however, no mass uprising has been able to achieve this, and few people are still alive who have gone through the experience of forming local workers’ councils akin to the soviets of revolutionary Russia. Steve is among those of us who have not lived through this experience.

This is probably one reason why Steve’s “We” seems somewhat unrooted in spite of all his efforts, and considerable success, in concretizing the experience of revolution — particularly in helping readers of his poem understand and feel why people rebelled, and how they discussed the problems of the revolution between February and October.

One Hundred Years describes the degeneration of the revolution and coming of counter-revolution in terms of scarcity of resources and of the careerism and lack of revolutionary commitment of too many workers who stayed at home rather than join the fight against the White armies.

The poem illustrates this experience through a nice brief verse that describes Alexandra Kollontai’s having to arrest staff of the Ministry of Social Welfare who were sabotaging her efforts as Minister. Some of the poem’s languages and images later in this section are haunting and brilliant. Here is an example from page 39:

We pass through
     this flame on the snow
and emerge, still breathing, after defeating
each of the armies arrayed against us.
The flame has, nonetheless,
scarred substantial portions
     of our flesh,
while many fingers and toes
are absent now due to the sharp bite
     of the Russian frost.

Without our missing fingers some things
     become harder for us to grasp.

Lacking certain toes we have more difficulty
     maintaining our balance.

The Revolution’s Decay

Yet in this section of the poem on the decay of the revolution, the “We” seems particularly abstract. Historically, the coming of counterrevolution also included many workers’ self-subversion of workers’ power by their own actions.

Many committed working-class revolutionaries, in the factories and in actions at home and in their neighborhoods, supported each step of the bureaucracy’s actions, in the hope that these would solve the terrible shortages of food and of jobs — while others opposed them as whittling away their freedoms to discuss and decide how to do the work safely or how to educate children or how to provide tools to the peasantry.

If Steve revises the poem to give us a vision of this content, concretizing the arguments, doubts and heartbreaks, it would strengthen both the politics and the art of what he has created (in my opinion) — but no one should underestimate the difficulty of doing this for any poet who has not been through such an experience.

There may be an additional reason why the “We” in the poem seems most abstract during the segment on the counterrevolution. The counterrevolution consisted in part in the weakening of the “We” as a “We,” as the bureaucracy increasingly became a “Them” and as the “We” lost unity, vision and ability to act as a subject/object of history, becoming instead an alienated working class being exploited at the direction of its new rulers.

Finally, I had the privilege of taking part in a public reading of One Hundred Years at the Brooklyn Commons Café on November 12, 2017 (available at It went over magnificently, and had visible emotional and intellectual impact on those of us who participated in the reading, as well as on many audience members whose gasps indicating new insights were visible and audible.

As for my criticisms — in many ways, I think the abstractness of the “We” in some parts of the poem stems from Steve’s (and our) lack of direct experience of taking part in a working class revolution. It is my fervent wish that we have the opportunity to correct this experience soon, and to feel the joys of making the revolution ourselves.

When and if this happens, I think the insights offered by One Hundred Years will help its readers to understand what they are doing and, hopefully, to do a better job of remaking the world. I therefore enthusiastically urge those who read this review to read Steve’s wonderful epic poem of the Russian Revolution.


  1. I do not claim to have understood the political import of this “sense” at that time. I saw it as an issue of poetic craft, not a key to a deeper political discussion.
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  2. Some readers might not understand why I call what happened in Ukraine a revolution. Please see Friedman (2015), in which I quote friends who were participants in the events and interpret what I think happened. Friedman, Sam. What happened in Ukraine? Z-Net. July 6, 2015. Reprinted in New Politics; and (with footnotes) at International Marxist Humanist Organization & at Ukraine Solidarity Campaign:
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March-April 2018, ATC 193