OCTOBER: The Story of the Russian Revolution
Verso, 2017, 369 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
1917 offered an extraordinary course in political literacy for the people of Russia. In the February anti-Tsarist revolution, which “dispensed breakneck with a half millennium of autocratic rule”, and then in the October socialist revolution, eager workers and peasants stumbled over and then mastered a new way to speak of economic and political democracy, writes China Miéville in his narrative of the Russian Revolution.
Miéville is an English left-wing political activist and award-winning writer of fantasy fiction and magical realism, which he self-describes as ‘weird’ fiction. The only thing ‘weird’ about 1917, however, at least by todays’ establishment political orthodoxy, is the notion that ordinary people can utterly recast their society and bring about momentous change. They can confront the apparently immovable object of capitalist solidity – and win! As Miéville says, the world’s first socialist revolution matters, and deserves celebration, because “things changed once, and they might do so again”.
Miéville has a novelist’s eye for a great story, and his breathless, journalistic narrative befits the dizzying pace and political drama of revolutionary upheaval, combining an impressionistic flurry of events with sparkling political tension. Miniature character portraits humanise the legendary cast. Lenin is a “plain not sparkling wordsmith” but his relentless political focus is “mesmerising” to friend and foe alike. Trotsky is “hard to love but impossible not to admire … charismatic and abrasive, brilliant and persuasive, and divisive and difficult”. The early Stalin is “a capable, if never scintillating, organiser. At best an adequate intellectual, at worst an embarrassing one … The impression he left was one of not leaving much of an impression”, other than of something ‘troubling’ in his character.The sweep of Miéville’s story takes in not just high politics but its grass-roots ferment, where “every queue was a political forum”, where waitresses refused to accept tips as demeaning, and where Tsarist statues were keenly pulled down, “some having been erected for the sole purpose of pulling down”. There was a glorious profusion of hyphenated political life-forms (Anarchist-Communists, Socialist-Revolutionary-Maximalists, etc.) on the left, outshining the main political species to their bourgeois and landowning right, the Constitutional Democrats, whose name was as drab as their political vision.
Miéville explores all sorts of by-ways, including religion, that were lapped by the waves of socialist radicalism. Muslim women, for example, found their voice – an All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress hosted 59 delegates (including socialist and feminist Muslims) who adopted ten principles on Muslim women’s rights, including equality of the sexes, the non-compulsory nature of the hijab, and opposition to plural marriage (polygyny) without consent.
Lenin looms ever larger as the pace of events picks up, deservedly so because political leadership mattered immensely. Miéville notes that Lenin is “easily mythologised, idolised or demonised” either as a “mass murdering monster” or a “godlike genius”. Miéville’s Lenin, by contrast, is credible. He was a selfless idealist but with all-too-human flaws (he was a fierce, sometimes insensitive, polemicist with his erstwhile comrades). An intellectual who didn’t just think about but lived for the hurly burly of revolution, Lenin was utterly determined (what his detractors misrepresent as fanatical) yet tactically flexible and strategically subtle, astutely judging when “the political moment” called for “patiently explaining” or for bold action, and when to toss overboard long-held Marxist verities (such as no socialism until consolidation of capitalist industrial development) – when, in short, to be, as he put it, ‘as radical as reality’.
What also emerges strikingly from Miéville’s account is the indispensability of democracy to Lenin’s politics, to the rest of the pre-Stalin Bolsheviks and to the revolution. From farm to factory, from soviet to party leadership, debate was boisterous, intense, heated at times, but always meaningful and prized. Lenin, the supposed proto-Stalinist tyrant, copped as good as he gave when it came to verbal jousts with his comrades, and more than a few times found himself in a minority in the party, and sometimes a minority of one on the Bolshevik Central Committee.
Miéville’s book is an amalgam of the journalistic, historical and biographical accounts of the revolution by Leon Trotsky, Victor Serge, John Reed and Isaac Deutscher but Miéville loses little in artistic comparison, and cedes nothing in revolutionary tone, to these writers who are clearly his strong political and stylistic influences.
Miéville’s aim in the book was always storytelling first, however, and, more than do his literary mentors, he foregrounds the theatre of revolt over the theory of revolution. In his Epilogue, however, he offers updated reflections on how “October is still ground zero for arguments about fundamental, radical social change”. All that the Right has to offer on this is some repeat-loop version of the malignity of socialism and its inevitable authoritarian slide into Red Terror because Marx begat Lenin begat Stalin, etc.
Miéville is much more honest and nuanced about how the post-revolution “moral and political rot” set in. The basic cause, he says, was the devastating loss of material and human resources from imperialist war, imperialist invasion, imperialist economic blockade, imperialist-backed civil war, and, above all else, socialist Russia’s isolation arising from the post-war failure of revolution (viciously suppressed in Germany) in capitalist Europe. These conditions fertilised the soil for what were, in the beleaguered times, unavoidable but meant-to-be-temporary retreats from a socialist democracy and economy. The emergency reversals in policy gradually hardened into virtues under Stalin, who groomed a new generation of politically undeveloped party members into a privileged bureaucratic stratum. A political diet as rich as it was in democracy and ideals and hope in 1917 could never sustain a healthy socialist development which lacked basic material nutrients.
What the anti-socialist warriors, then and now, can never concede is that Lenin’s Bolsheviks won the battle of ideas in 1917, in Pravda editorial, conference resolution, street pamphlet and stump speech. The revolution was not a contest of military force and political coup played out over the people’s heads but a successful fight to win over people through debate.
The haters of socialist revolution may still be partying over the death of a socialism which they declare was manifested in the nauseous fever of Stalin and the long coma under his neo-Stalinist successors, but their celebrations are always at risk of being cut short. The socialist idea is too resilient and that is why the Russian Revolution matters, Melville concludes, because “what’s at stake isn’t the interpretation just of history but of the present”, as he has noted elsewhere about the “extraordinary political upsets” and near misses, for better or worse (BREXIT, Corbyn, Sanders, Trump), in 2016 when “the questioning of received opinions” erupted. 1917 may have been “ultimately tragic” but it remains “ultimately inspiring” for those who want such revolts to break in the better direction.