HWO’s Radical Books series shares subversive, seminal, and seismic texts that have shaped understandings of radical history, provoked controversy in their time, or sparked social change.
‘The madness of daring is the wisdom of life. Oh, Falcon undaunted! Thou hast shed precious blood in the fight with the foe, but the time will yet come when the drops of thy blood will glow like sparks in the gloom of life and fire brave hearts with love of freedom and light.’
Writing in the context of the oppressive regime of Tsar Nicholas II, the Russian author Maxim Gorky rose to fame in the 1890s for his short stories and poems about workers and peasants on the margins of society. Reflecting the upsurge of the revolutionary movement of the period with its optimistic cry ‘[w]e sing a song to the madness of daring’, his poem ‘Song of the Falcon’ encouraged workers and peasants to rise against Tsarist oppression.
One admirer was V. I. Lenin, who met Gorky in 1902. In his essay ‘To the author of Song of the Falcon’ (1914), Lenin noted that ‘the workers have grown accustomed to regard Gorky as their own. They have always believed that his heart beats as warmly as theirs for the cause of the proletariat, and that he has dedicated his talent to the service of this cause’.
In the early 1910s, Lenin was exiled in Switzerland and Gorky on the island of Capri, but they were part of an international revolutionary community that included 25,000 Russians in Paris. Gorky’s friend Mikhail Pavlovich, a Russian Menshevik-turned-Bolshevik based in Paris from 1909 to 1914, associated closely with Indian revolutionaries in the city, especially Madame Bhikaiji Cama.
According to Pavlovich, when he read Gorky’s poem aloud to Cama, she shed a few tears and declared that ‘it was better than any revolutionary essay, any proclamation, better than Tolstoy and against British rule in India’. Pavlovich subsequently introduced Cama to Gorky. In the autumn of 1912, Gorky invited Cama to write an essay on the condition of women in India for a Russian publication. Although this never materialised, the exchange between Pavlovich, Gorky and Cama is evidence of the revolutionary nature of Gorky’s poem ‘Song of the Falcon’ beyond the admiration of Lenin. Indeed, with its call to rebel against oppression, be it Tsarist or imperialist, the poem resonated equally with Russian and Indian revolutionaries and illuminates the ways in which radical literature circulated within the international revolutionary community in the decades before the Russian Revolution.
Ole Birk Laursen is a Lecturer in Postcolonial Indian Literature at NYU London, and a Research Associate at the Open University, UK. His research concerns the history and literature of black and South Asian people in Britain and Europe from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. His co-edited books are ‘Reworking Postcolonialism: Globalization, Labour and Migration’ (Palgrave 2015) and ‘Networking the Globe: New Technologies and the Postcolonial’ (Routledge 2016). Twitter: @OleBirkLaursen.