There’s Nothing so Weird as a Revolution

Ian Birchall reviews China Miéville’s October, a new history of the Russian Revolution.

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It seems an odd pairing: the Russian Revolution and China Miéville, whose reputation is based on fantasy fiction which he himself describes as “weird”. But one only needs to read a few pages to realise that this is not a forced marriage of celebrity author and current topical theme in pursuit of an enlarged audience. The book is based on extensive reading, on discussion with scholars including Eric Blanc, Lars Lih and Kevin Murphy, and a visit to Saint Petersburg. When the distinguished historian Sheila Fitzpatrick reviewed October in the London Review of Books (30 March 2017) she disagreed with Miéville’s perspective but did not detect any errors of fact, simply noting that he had “done his homework”.

October will be read both by newcomers to the subject, and by old- timers like myself, who know the story (and its tragic sequel) well. Readers in the latter category will discover much that they had forgotten or never known, details, anecdotes and some of the multitude of individuals who made the revolution possible.

Why was the revolution necessary? As Miéville shows, Russian society had been characterised by poverty and inequality for centuries, but the First World War plunged it into deeper crisis: “Ammunition, equipment, food run short. Inflation soars, with a brutal impact on workers and the urban middle class.” Things could not stay the same; what the “Lenin leads to Stalin” school never tells us is what alternative solutions were available. The Tsar understood nothing; Miéville sees him as a “well-educated vacuity [who] …. paddled on, dignified and proper, eyes on the horizon, the current hauling him towards a cataract.” Moderates like Kerensky, “flamboyant” and on occasion “mendacious”, did not have the radical policies required.

Miéville is generous towards the colourful anarchist groupings, which had some real influence and support. When the authorities decided to evict anarchist organisations from a villa which they had made into their headquarters, twenty-eight factories struck in support.

Above all the initiative was with the Bolsheviks. Yet there were many ups and downs between February and October. Often they were divided, sometimes isolated, facing the hostility of the workers they aimed to represent. In July they assembled, “in a state of extreme tension and semi-illegality, rudderless, their leaders imprisoned or on the run”. In the end their courage and tenacity paid off; Miéville praises “the unstinting work of Bolshevik cadres, especially the undersung middle-level activists. They were the backbone of the party organisations across the empire.” What they certainly were not was “a centralised party built along military lines, with iron discipline”, as Zinoviev ludicrously claimed in 1920.

Stalin, not yet forty, also makes a brief appearance – “A capable, if never scintillating, organiser. At best an adequate intellectual, at worst an embarrassing one.” Miéville does not question Stalin’s sincerity – genuine revolutionaries can go wrong.

Bolshevik democracy was not a formal question. Once the Central Committee voted among themselves against participation in the Preparliament, but so narrowly – nine votes to eight – that they decided to continue the debate and convened an emergency meeting with delegates. They understood – unlike some latter-day proponents of “democratic centralism” – that what matters is winning the argument, not the vote.

In all this Lenin’s role was crucial, and he is the central character of the narrative. We see him greeted by thousands at the Finland Station – but also in hiding, disguised as the stoker of a train, eagerly shovelling coal. Unlike some historians Miéville does not show the frequently ramshackle nature of Bolshevik organisation in order to contrast Lenin’s constant correctness. (As he points out, Tony Cliff claims that when the Bolsheviks opposed Kornilov’s attempted coup they were following Lenin’s line, when in fact Lenin only approved their action retrospectively.) At one point Lenin’s positions are described as “equivocal” and “evasive”.

Lenin was not the model democratic centralist. On one occasion, we’re told, he “did not so much flout as shatter the vaunted ‘discipline’ of a revolutionary party”. He was never afraid to change his mind, to vary his tactics according to circumstances. “Having yanked the party to the left in April, now [June] Lenin was trying to tug it right.” His ability to make such changes is attributed to “minute attention to shifts in politics”.

Lenin’s role was important, but only as part of a process involving many thousands of individuals, most of them nameless in the historical record. While Miéville’s portrayal of Lenin is overwhelmingly positive, he is notably more reticent than Trotsky, or Tony Cliff, in claiming that Lenin’s role was essential – as Cliff put it (Lenin, volume II chapter 7) “No one but Lenin could have rearmed the party ideologically in the short time the revolution allowed.” This ignores the terrible weakness of a revolution that depends on a single individual. It was a point that was not missed by those who murdered Rosa Luxemburg.

Miéville never forgets that the role of leaders can only be understood in the context of the self-activity of the mass of workers. In Petrograd in February “Some of the insurgents recalled those councils of 1905, those soviets. Activists and streetcorner agitators had already begun to call for their return, in leaflets, in boisterous voices from the crowds.” When the Soviet was established, it set out to organise “a workers’ militia to establish and maintain order. It inaugurated a food commission to regulate supply.”

When people set out to change the world they also change themselves. Miéville tells of the soldatki – wives of soldiers who at the outbreak of war were described as “helpless creatures” and “blind moles”, but by 1917 “the soldatki  were self-organising in their own soviets”. Everywhere the spirit of revolt spread. The British journalist Morgan Philips Price reported that in one monastery “monks had gone on strike and had turned out the abbot, who had gone off whining to the Holy Synod”.

Miéville’s “Epilogue” is excessively bleak. What he dismisses as “the first, most faltering steps” could have been presented more positively; working- class creativity and self-activity could have been given more prominence. He misses the international impact of the Revolution; for millions of war-weary workers, although they knew nothing in detail, the Russian events seemed to offer an alternative road.

Wisely Miéville does not try to draw any direct political lessons. “It would be absurd, a ridiculous myopia, to hold up October as a simple lens through which to view the struggles of today.” As the mass of concrete detail accumulated in the book shows, the world of October 1917 was very different from our own. Yet, in Victor Serge’s words, the workers of 1917 were “infinitely different from us, infinitely like us”. In 1968, when we thought we had glimpsed the beginning of a revolutionary upturn, we turned back to 1917 because it was all we had – the only successful workers’ revolution. Doubtless we clung on to our model for too long.

For Miéville 1917 was a “revolution of trains”. Railways conditioned the forms which revolution took. The “revolution of the internet” will be very different. But some essentials will remain (mass involvement of workers, democratic self-organisation, replacing institutions rather than using them). October 1917 can be an inspiration and a warning; Miéville’s book is a contribution to our struggle.

This article first appeared in issue #11 of the rs21 magazine. for more information, visit rs21.org.uk

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