Gut-wrenching Images: reviewing Revolutions by Michael Löwy5 min read

 In Culture, Review, Russia
Revolutions by Michael Löwy is a five-hundred-page black-and-white volume of photographs originally published in French and translated into English by Todd Chretien. Included in this volume are images of the Paris Commune, the Spanish Civil War, and a number of revolutions – Russian, Hungarian, German, Mexican, Chinese, and Cuban. The photographs are primarily of people in public places, mostly candid shots, though there are posed group photos of workers in the chapters about the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. 

People’s faces are so starkly different from how people are photographed today. For one, large group shots of stern faces from decades past will always be jarring. When you look at their eyes, it’s as if the difficulty of their lives and dire need for a revolution radiate off the pages. Images of crying women will always tug at my heart, especially at the hopelessness of state-sanctioned violence.

I enjoyed exploring the photographs, especially when large groups of people are together, holding protest signs. I loved piecing together the handwritten slogans and handwoven protest signs of the people, especially in the photos of the Russian Revolution in October of 1905. There is such power in the written word, especially at a riot. There were no hashtag campaigns at the time. Many of the phrases were organic or passed on through chanting. Löwy’s commentary on these photos is brief, yet insightful as he is a noted Marxist sociologist and professor from Brazil. 

The worker’s strike at the Putilov metal factory in Saint-Peterburg in January 1905 / Revolutions

One of my favorite photos from the collection is a photo of workers on strike at the Putilov metal factory in Saint- Petersburg in January of 1905. Perhaps it’s the turn-of-the-century winter wear or the fact that everyone is standing outside an empty factory in the snow that gets me. The photo depicts the awkward time between picketing and listening to an impassioned speech, but rather, the down-time in a protest. Participating in a strike is not just shouting and marching nonstop, but rather, periods of activity followed by downtime and “rest”. I am interested in the lull between direct actions that can’t be accurately described as “restful” or “boredom”, yet in a way, this paradoxical feeling is something any worker who has ever gone on strike can relate to. In the twenty-first century, industrial workers in Western countries are conditioned not to strike unless it is the last straw.

The Ivanovo Voznesenksy Sovet / Revolutions
Trigger warning needed 

First off, this book needs a trigger warning. While most of the photographs are powerful group shots or images of rebellions, there are some truly gruesome photos. (Trigger Warning: death, violence) In the chapter about the Chinese revolutions, there are pictures of beheadings and human heads just sitting on the ground. In the chapter about the Hungarian Revolution, there are corpses still hanging by rope around the neck. In the chapter about the Mexican Revolution, there are freshly assassinated bodies in rows. I don’t think these photos have educational qualities to them other than to shock the viewer. I think there should have been warnings on the previous pages, at the very least. 

(Trigger Warning: death, antisemitism) The chapter on the 1905 Russian Revolution contains multiple photos of piles of naked bodies from the anti-semitic pogroms in Jekaterinoslaw. Löwy writes that “tsarist forces mobilized to confront the October movement, relying on, as was customary, bands of criminals organized from the scum of society, whose speciality was launching pogroms, especially against Jews who were demonized and accused of conspiring against the tsar. Hundreds of grisly anti-Semitic pogroms took place in October, instigated by local authorities and zealous tsarist supporters who were lauded as ‘patriots’. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were massacred, and many more were mutilated.” 

Löwy writes that the pogroms were a tsarist reaction to the peoples’ revolution but I don’t see why they needed to be included in this chapter. There was certainly not a simultaneous people’s movement to protect the Jews. Pogroms reached the scale they did because of anti-semitism on all sides of the revolution. However, I found the photos really unnecessary and disgusting. 

Maybe these photos are interesting to some, but as a young person who regularly uses the internet, I have seen too many images of the Holocaust without warning. If the collection of photos from this book are designed to inspire, they don’t need to include images of senseless death. They especially do not need to contribute to the still-relevant worldwide epidemic of antisemitism by showing not just one, but three photos of dead Jews. 

In the United States, it is inappropriate to show images of lynched black people. It’s important to acknowledge that this was a widely accepted practice and that many people were complicit even if they do not consider themselves an outright racist, bigot, or white supremacist. I’m not asking for censorship or an erasure of history, but trigger warnings in this book would surely be useful.

Conclusion

While this book has some great footage of rebellions, the lack of filter really sours the reading experience for me. I also hope that should another version of Revolutions be released, that it will be published with warnings as well in a larger format. Many of the photos contain large cities or giant groups of people at the turn of the century. A larger format could do the beautiful sweeping crowds of radicals and revolutionaries justice. It would at least humanize the experience and show more respect to the original photographers. With certain photos removed, it could also be used in a classroom.

I first encountered Löwy’s work in Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe, and I highly recommend that book, instead of Revolutions, as a first dive into socialist literature.

Book details: Löwy, Michael. Revolutions, 2020. Haymarket Books. It is available to buy here

Featured image: Revolutions / Amanda Sonesson
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