What we learned from the Russian Revolution

When Finance Minister Mathias Cormann got stuck into Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's economic policies this week he might have been taking heed of Sean McMeekin's new history of the Russian Revolution in which the American professor sounds a warning about the rise in popularity of "Marxist-style maximalist socialism" in the US and Western capitalist countries.

McMeekin, a guest this weekend at the Melbourne Writers Festival - theme: revolutions - said he saw the likes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn??? as figures who had formed their belief systems during the Cold War and therefore not figures of tomorrow.

"What is more interesting is the chord they have struck," he said. "It's not that I necessarily think this is a world-conquering movement, it's more that it's quite surprising when you think where we were 25 years ago when it really did seem that Marx was dead and buried."

McMeekin's The Russian Revolution places more emphasis on the effect of World War I in events 100 years ago and details Lenin's relationship with Germany, which provided the Bolsheviks and others with substantial funds to foment unrest. Lenin was "the critical catalyst of chaos, a one-man demolition crew sent to wreck Russia's war effort".

He thinks the legacy of the revolution is less clear than before the collapse of the Soviet Union when the world was living under the guns of the Cold War. "It still lives with us in the sense of the changing of our political vocabulary, our understanding of political economy, of social revolution and concepts to do with the legitimacy of governments and whether they can and should be toppled."

In Russia, apparently, the attitude to the revolution is ambivalent, with not much effort to commemorate "certainly not to celebrate" it. The Putin government, he says, would not want to encourage that sort of unrest.

"The regime today derives a lot of legitimacy from World War II, from the legends and myths - some of them true - of the Great Patriotic War, not as much from Lenin. Stalin, oddly enough, is a better remembered and even better liked figure in Russia today than Lenin."

And how does he view Putin? As a latter-day Tsar? A nationalist in the tradition of Russian strongmen?

To say Putin, a former KGB operative, has no residue of a Communist past, McMeekin says, is an exaggeration. "He is a product of the same establishment and you can trace the KGB right back to the Cheka [the first Soviet secret police]. It's there in the strength of the state, the strength of the security services, the security men surrounding him, the way he perceives the world. But I don't think he's a particularly malevolent version of this - nothing near the scale of oppression and surveillance of Stalin's day."

But surprisingly he has some sympathy with the Russians in their "fraught" relationship with the US. "To be fair they can turn around and say, well look at all the American meddling in the politics of eastern Europe."

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This story What we learned from the Russian Revolution first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.