Communist propaganda disguised as art, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin – a truly iconic film in the entire history of cinema – must be seen and understood as a piece of film-making in itself, and not only as the product of a specific era, aimed to awe and persuade.
Looking back to the past with the benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing… Being far removed from the actions and the emotions of a certain period in time – especially if it is a controversial one – allows great insight into what once might have been taken for granted. With communism long gone, and the cold war consigned to the history books, the narrative within Battleship Potemkin [Bronenosets Potyomkin] can be finally understood allegorically – seen past through its propaganda veneer.
In June 1905, aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin, the crew sparkles a mutiny against their officers. The story is divided into five acts: Act I: Men and Maggots; Act II: Drama on Deck; Act III: The Dead Man Calls Out; Act IV: The Odessa Steps; Act V: Rendezvous with the Squadron. The revolt starts because the crew is forced to accept rotten meat. The ones who made a fuss about it are to be executed. But as the members of the firing squad refuse to fire and lower their rifles, the mutiny takes its course as the officers are subdued and eventually killed. The Potemkin arrives at the port of Odessa, inciting more insurrection from the people, who are massacred by the army. The regime sends loyal battleships to attack the rebels, but instead, the Potemkin is allowed to pass by unscathed.
It is incredible how whole populations on both sides of the ideological abyss – promptly indoctrinated about the evils of the other side – never seem to realise that certain needs, wishes and struggles are universal to every human being, no matter where one lives. It always strikes me as astounding that many seem incapable of seeing through the hypocrisy of the West. While proclaiming its full commitment to freedom, the ‘greatest’ country this side of the Iron Curtain had effectively banned communism as a subversive practice. It is fairly obvious that the sailors of the Potemkin are only seeking justice and freedom, like anyone would, anywhere in the world, under any system.
..Battleship Potemkin Trailer © Kino International.
Perhaps, it is indeed obvious that America’s stance towards communism has always been a charade; a farce; a scapegoat-ed attitude disguising pure and total cynicism. The peak of the anti-communist sentiment during the Cold War just demonstrates how intertwined the supposedly ideological position is with certain specific geopolitical circumstances. In the West, a century since the outset of the Bolshevik Revolution, the enemy has nowadays a different set of belief – a little bit more nihilist and a lot more theocentrical – just to show how empty the dichotomy capitalism-communism really is (and have always been). The fact remains that the economies of the developed nations have always had elements of communist doctrine in them.
What to say of the Royal Parks of London, which in practical terms are owned by the community that surround them? In fact, the parks are the property of the Crown, which grants access to the green spaces according to its grace and favour. As in other instances, it all seems to be a matter of semantics. The Queen is the owner, but the public, its tenant, does not pay rent! Let’s call a spade, a spade. Well, some might say, you’re not even naming the economic systems correctly. What we have, not only in England but in many countries across Europe is actually aspects of democratic socialism, not communism. Fair enough! But the belief that within capitalist societies the only determining factor on economic matters is the free market without any government interference is, at best misleading, and at worst, false.
Anyway, what existed in the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1989 was never what Marx had in mind, as the end-point of the struggle between the eventual misery and disruption caused by the excesses of capitalist society and the socialist reaction to it, i.e. communism in a pure form. There is obviously a deep irony of watching this great masterpiece of Soviet film-making nearly a century after it was made, in its pristine version, after restoration has been done to it. As capitalist apologists (“Argh! How I hate these iPhone communists!”) like to mention so often: “It is funny how these people who love communism so much cannot live without their capitalist commodities.”
The problem with such an attitude and the people who praise capitalism so high and refuse to even try to understand what socialist ideas entail is that they seem incapable of seeing capitalism’s own propaganda. Actually, there is no “Us and Them.” Such cynical tribalism (based on an authoritarian principle that distrusts our moral judgement) helps nobody. They keep telling us that we live under the best economic system ever invented by man and yet, as soon as we are exposed to a supposedly unworkable (not to mention the past atrocities associated with such a doctrine) set of economic rules, they panic. If communism is such an evil and impractical system there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
What is indeed remarkable is that even if Battleship Potemkin were not a wonderful source material for such endless philosophical discussions, it still would be a great film, for the images that it presents to us are truly magnificent!