China Miéville October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. (New York and London: Verso, 2017)
“Fired up, firing, fired upon,” Miéville’s October transports its readers to the factories, streets, and battle lines of Petrograd. Vivacious yet precise and unembroidered prose celebrates 1917’s twin revolutions.1 Carefully composed sketches and anecdotes capture the dynamics—“kinetics” may be a more appropriate word—of revolution, of rapidly changing mass consciousness, of ordinary people accomplishing great things, or in words attributed to one of the protagonists, “weeks when decades happen.”2 Indeed, the February revolution brought a sharp end to Russia’s 19th century and Tsarist pretentions to modernity and constitutionalism. But Miéville also reconstructs the thoroughgoing uncertainty and doubt about what should follow… and their ultimate resolution in the events of October.
Published on the revolution’s centenary, October fills an interesting niche. Both revolutions, February and October, have been disowned by the Russian government. Even the Putin administration, heir in many ways to February, demurred from their celebration while Russian religious orthodoxy mourns Tsar Nicholas.3 Making matters still more challenging for those seeking wisdom from 1917 is the bifurcation of strategy that became commonplace in 20th Century Marxism: it was often claimed that revolution, a “war of maneuver” in Gramscian parlance, may have been appropriate for Russia but that it had little applicability to the West and its “war of position.” Mieville’s October however recovers the revolution’s relevance and his reconstruction of events imparts a sense of immediacy.
The book is a narrative bridging Russian history across the two revolutions; it is anchored in the pre-1917 era – a sequence that begins with the founding of St. Petersburg in 1703, and runs through 19th Century Tsarist repression, reforms and populist resistance, before entering the early 20th century with the Russo-Japanese war, the 1905 dress-rehearsal of revolution, and World War One. The main section comes next, spanning the spring, summer and autumn months of 1917 and the back-and-forth that climaxes with October. A considerable epilogue anchors the post-October period with an appraisal of the Bolsheviks’ mixed legacy. Despite events that are today common knowledge, one experiences suspense and even anxiety as the revolution comes together in fits and starts.
Throughout the book, the reader is rewarded not only with an exciting and accessible history, but also a survey of the big issues and dilemmas that revolutionaries must confront. We witness the twin Russian Revolutions’ grappling with war and peace; hunger, disease and development; gender, nationalities, class, and representation. In Miéville’s ample storytelling hands, these issues come alive through the spirited debates between parties, factions, and leading individuals, and in the many fora that revolutions create and traverse.4 As a result, both well-trained Marxists and people with only a casual interest in history are furnished rich descriptions and more than enough facts to themselves second guess this or that historical actor. Wouldn’t it have been better if...
One can easily chart the course of the revolutions and the different positions advocated not only by various Marxist currents, but also the vast range of other actors, from Monarchists, through the Kadets, to nationalists and anarchists of various sorts. Miéville’s story telling is therefore very empowering. The non-expert reader may formulate many interesting questions, including perhaps the biggest of them all: was Lenin’s “revolutionary defeatism” too extreme a position?5 Regardless of one’s own opinion on the topic, one can clearly understand the variety of other strategic orientations, including “revolutionary defencism,” patriotic war, and selective support for this or that offensive, etc.. The reader soon comes to understand the connection between questions of war and peace, on the one hand, and of gender and social class, on the other. Although Miéville is clearly sympathetic to Lenin’s posture on most questions, other positions and their adherents also emerge in their own right, and not as caricatures, save perhaps the wily Kerensky.6 Lenin, nonetheless, is clearly the first among equals in this narrative.
Lenin’s and his rivals’ positions on World War One are well rehearsed among Marxists, particularly those of us inspired by the October revolution. What makes Miéville’s telling so important for our times is that it restores World War One to the center stage. This helps us understand how it is that the Bolsheviks alignment with Lenin’s position won for them majority support among the soldiers, their wives (the soldatki), and the urban working class. Miéville has his readers journey to the frontlines, in one case accompanying Kerensky, “smiling through the shit, mud and blood of battle lines,” as the Provisional Government leader rallied support for yet another “final” assault on enemy positions.7 On another occasion, we come to understand the war-related privations faced by the soldatki and their resulting militancy. We join them in demonstrations through Petrograd and in the provinces, “forcing their way into homes and ‘requisitioning’ any luxury they thought was undeserved.”8 Yet Miéville is a little too restrained in demonstrating the impact of the war, telling more than showing despite his extraordinary narrative faculties.9
Nonentheless, we can more fully comprehend the scale of the tragedy that World War One – upwards of 40-million casualties (half of those fatalities), and the direct losses to Russia which suffered 30% of allied casualties. It is therefore easier to grasp both Lenin’s demand to end the war via revolution as a strategic response, and the simple moral outrage and deep sense of betrayal that revolutionary socialists must have felt toward the Second Internationalists who voted for war credits. As 1917 progressed, the Provisional Government, the Soviets dominated by Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, and even some Bolsheviks dithered on the question of war. We learn of Lenin’s implacable antiwar advocacy so forcefully articulated right after the February revolution, in his “Letters from Afar,” and which remains a consistent theme thereafter.10 We understand the depth of this commitment, one which he refuses to surrender even in the desperately hot days of July 1917. Then, the Bolsheviks and their supporters among the sailors, soldiers and factory workers toyed with revolution. But this brought severe repression and isolation, especially when Lenin was branded a German spy. At this moment, one can imagine Lenin tempering his opposition to war in order to weaken the charge; what would have been easier than retreating into what Lenin described as “petit-bourgeois jingoism”?11 But the “opportunist with principles” chose principle over opportunism.
We also learn of the intricate and profound relationship between antiwar positions and Lenin’s analysis of the conjuncture. Readers travel palace corridors and interminable railway lines through the crumbling Tsarist state, seeing it almost first hand as a machine of war that bloodily creaks on even after its effective decapitation with Tsar Nicholas’s abdication, and through the weak governments of Prince Lvov and later Kerensky. Lenin’s April Theses moot the claim that proletarian leadership of the (non-socialist) revolution is necessary and that it should be expressed in the form of a Republic of Soviets. At that moment, the Theses were a radical break with the conventional Marxist wisdom that the February revolution was to usher in the bourgeois revolution. Miéville’s adroit summation and retelling of Lenin’s position clearly conveys why it would shock Lenin’s contemporaries and yet seem so reasonable to us today.12
Restoring World War One to the centerstage is a political act. Bourgeois narratives, like the Norman MacFarquhar and Serge Schmemann essays cited above (note 3), present the October as an opportunistic coup that was both unnecessary and in the event unnecessarily violent. With Miéville’s handing however, we come to understand how antiwar politics could only be resolved via a revolution of the type advocated by Trotsky and Lenin, first as minorities and later as part of the Bolshevik, Left Socialist Revolutionary, and Menshevik Internationalist majority in the Soviets.
In an age where bourgeois rule in its neoliberal incarnation has pruned the state of meaningful welfare and emergency capacities, but left in place multiple, often rival, police, military and intelligence apparatuses, the revolutionary situation obtaining in war-wracked Petrograd is suddenly relevant. Couple this with the extreme intra- and international inequalities of our day, the periodic economic crises, and ever-increasing climate-related catastrophes, and the sharp, high-stakes debates of the Russian Revolutions are again relevant. Thus Miéville’s telling, with his theoretically savvy and informed accounts of 1917’s debates and their circumstances, arms his readers for present day matters 13
There is another matter of great relevance to contemporary debates. It is one that Miéville successfully, but perhaps unwittingly, poses: how does the working class—as distinct from this or that group of workers—speak or act? We come to understand the role of the Soviets, coupled with socialist agitation, in constructing the working class as a self-conscious actor. In this narrative, we witness the growth and spread of the Soviets, in the big cities to be sure, but also through much of the Russian Empire.14 We also learn that the Bolsheviks and particularly Lenin and Trotsky contested for working class consciousness in the Soviets, on the frontlines, and directly in working class neighborhoods. Against party comrades, Lenin had to fight for the slogan of “All Power to the Soviets” but later, he also has to argue against a premature transfer of power to the Soviets (i.e. ending the dual power held between the Soviets and the Provisional Government) until revolutionary workers won a majority in the Soviets. Similarly, we witness competing kinds of militancy and consciousness among workers and among the soldiers. We are also treated to moments where both Miéville and the Bolsheviks, whose positions he approvingly quotes, talk about direct, unmediated actions by the proletariat—such as when this or that garrison or group of factory workers seizes control of a fortress or factory dispensing with the deliberative institutions of the proletariat, even ones that the Bolsheviks valorized. Although such direct actions may have been necessary, revolutionaries still have grapple with the problem of democracy and moments when actions by particular groups of workers may not express either the present consciousness or the imputed interests of the working class as a whole.
Miéville is to be commended for his lifelike tableaus that allow this reader to notice this problem. However, his own political tradition, which evaluates the revolutionary import of actions by workers in terms of their approximation to imputed revolutionary interests, prevents him from fully exploring this question.15 Following 1917, Marxists would typically turn to “the Party” as an adequate expression of the real interests of the working class in specific conjunctures or “concrete situations.” But October reveals the Bolsheviks to be neither united nor consistent as to what these interests may be. Indeed, this is a challenge that bedevils all revolutionary movements. Even in the rare, Tahrir Square moments, when activists in Miéville’s tradition were indeed influential, only a tiny fraction of the working class is represented in the decisive direct actions.16 Nonetheless, October presents the working class actively debating key questions in a variety of situations, in the formal Soviets, in platoons, in party and faction caucuses. October preserves Petrograd as a laboratory of revolution and proto-democracy from which we can draw not only inspiration but multiple and even contradictory lessons worthy of further, deliberate, exploration by latter-day revolutionaries.
Miéville’s October also succeeds in surfacing another dimension of the revolution that is of critical importance to the revolution in our time: the nationalities questions. Whereas such powerful, impressive and inspiring accounts of the October revolution as written by John Reed and Alexander Rabinowitz barely mention the role of the Muslim colonial subjects of the Tsar, Miéville devotes parts of chapters to describe activism by these communities.17 We visit their congresses and learn of their resolutions. Nationalities are presented as critical actors in the proletarian revolution. For example, Kornilov, the general who would be dictator, thought that he could depend on the Turkman fighters of the “Savage” Division to rule. Successful organizing and agitation on the frontlines however denied Kornilov these Muslim troops. We also get a sense of the developing national consciousness among these colonized peoples. But this is too incomplete a picture. Although Mieville provides a more than adequate account of the development of socialist and Marxist thinking in Russia (without ever seeming pedantic or didactic), he simply fails to provide a similarly effective exploration of the development of political consciousness among the nationalities. Similar, though significantly less egregious, deficits afflict his account of the changing consciousness among women and the peasantry.18
Is the aforementioned criticism of any strategic import? Recent readings of the events in Petrograd push for an affirmative answer. Jonathan Smele’s well-received recent book, The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916-1926, suggests that “the wars that wracked the collapsing Russian Empire and emerging Soviet Union can be said to have begun in the summer of 1916…” and “with colonial and religio-cultural conflicts in which Russians (once Orthodox, then militantly atheistic) battled Muslims.”19 While Miéville takes events in Petrograd as the core of his remit, it would have been wise to explore these other, non-class dimensions of the revolutionary process. As decisive as events in Petrograd were, many were outcomes whose motors were elsewhere, i.e. in the periphery of the dying empire. Of course, this periphery becomes central to the eventual defeat of the White Russians and the invading imperialist forces during the Civil War. As such, the reduction of the nationalities to a cameo role is regrettable.
If one can detect a blemish here or there in this otherwise brilliant narrative, it is because the story is just so well told as to generate expectations of perfection. The same is true of the book’s conclusion. Breaking with narrative but nevertheless maintaining an exciting pace, the author asks questions and only implies answers. Was the revolution necessary? Could it have succeeded in propelling humanity out of capitalist misery and into socialism? What alternative paths might revolutionaries have pursued? Are the Bolsheviks alone to blame for the failure in building a democracy?
Through his voice, Lenin’s words, and others’ critiques, the readers join Miéville in an earnest search for answers. He provides an informal historical sociology of revolution and a somewhat shocking proposition. Trains and railways are critical to the narrative… sealed trains, tracks to frontlines, stoking the engines, the locomotives… of history. And another more obscure reference, switchmen. These are the people who shift the trains from one set of tracks to another… the Bolsheviks emerge as the switchmen of history. Their tragedy, beyond their eventual extirpation by the Stalinist terror state, was that they ran out of tracks in Miéville’s reading. Miéville qua famed science fiction writer makes this point thusly: it was a revolution for which there was “no place of their own in time.” This is no easy conclusion. One can almost hear the writer’s words as a plaintive murmur as he asks with Lenin, “whether a people ‘influenced by the hopelessness of its situation’ could be blamed for ‘fling[ing] itself into a struggle that would offer it at least some chance of securing conditions for the further development of civilization…’”20 But he goes on to notice, retreating even more pensively into the abstract, “Onto such tracks the revolutionaries divert their train, with its contraband cargo, unregisterable, supernumerary, powering for a horizon, an edge as far away as ever and yet careering closer.”21
Had the author not provided a wonderfully nuanced work generating expectations for profound insights, one could close this review with the author’s words quoted above. However, this reviewer wonders whether his legitimate revulsion at the Stalinist state leads him to too easily dismiss the gains of the non-capitalist pathway the Soviet Union travelled until its demise. Those enabled nearly a third of humanity to, at least temporarily, weaken imperialist links and foster new hope through new forms of development and cooperation, as the revolutionary torch passed forward to other bearers.22 To be sure, today we are bound to find ourselves in a period of “formalized floundering,” much like the Bolsheviks in July 1917. But we are strengthened by their experiences and Mieville’s re-chronicling of it.23 Welcoming the Arab Spring and the eruption of the #Occupy, Antonio Negri wonders aloud whether, ‘Lenin [personified] as the withering-away of the state, the organized (not anarchic, but institutionally led) destruction of central power and of the “theological-political” nexus in all its forms, the reappropriation of freedom and of wealth [can] be a project for the future?’24 In October Miéville has furnished that Lenin.
Socialism and Democracy
1 October, p. 178. Describing his writing style, Miéville explains that it is “tightly controlled”: “Well, I’ll never be a minimalist. The fact that the prose is more tightly controlled doesn’t for a minute mean that it’s minimalist.” See “China Miéville: Science Fiction Author” Believer Magazine. April 2005, Available at: https://www.believermag.com/issues/200504/?read=interview_mieville
2 “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” Is often attributed to Lenin. See for example Amy Austin Holmes “There Are Weeks When Decades Happen: Structure and Strategy in the Egyptian Revolution,” Mobilization: An International Journal. 17:4 (2012). But as Wikiquote notes, this is always without citation and may be related to remarks of similar thrust from Marx: “twenty years may amount to a day’s worth of major developments” but “these may be again succeeded by days into which 20 years are compressed.” See Wikiquote, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Vladimir_Lenin and a Letter, Marx to Engels, 9 April 1863 in Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence 1965, p. 140, available at: https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1863/letters/63_04_09.htm. Shortly after the October Revolution, in “The Chief Task of Our Day,” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/mar/11.htm), Lenin similarly celebrated the time compression that revolution accomplishes: “In the space of a few days we destroyed one of the oldest, most powerful, barbarous and brutal of monarchies. In the space of a few months we passed through a number of stages of collaboration with the bourgeoisie and of shaking off petty-bourgeois illusions, for which other countries have required decades.”
3 See Norman MacFarquhar “‘Revolution? What Revolution?’ Russia Asks 100 Years Later” in the New York Times March 10, 2017 and Serge Schmemann “What Revolution?” in the New York Times November 7, 2017. There is also a sickening irony in the fact that so many mainstream media references to Lenin in 2017 are not about the revolution but those that identify him as Trump confrere Stephen K. Bannon’s inspiration!
4 The author frequent but judicious use of the many participants’ actual verbiage—borrowed from their speeches, diaries, and others’ first-hand accounts—leaves one feeling like the proverbial “fly-on-the-wall” in history-making chambers. Given the extremely wide cast of historical figures, the book includes a helpful glossary. It also has helpful recommendations for further readings that are organized by subject. Also extremely helpful are the two maps that allow one to understand the relationship of neighborhoods, factories, fortresses, stations, and bridges to various mobilizations and social classes.
5 This is position rejected pro-war organizing against opposing nations and advocated for the revolutionary overthrow of one’s own ruling class to be followed by the withdrawal from the war.
6 Even with Kerensky, there is enough of a multidimensional account that one is left wondering whether or not his unwitting dithering and slippery relationship with Kornilov actually bought the Bolsheviks the time they needed to organize and better coordinate their military supporters.
7 October, p. 136
8 October p. 115. In this and the repeated strains of La Marseillaise that Miéville orchestrates here and there, 1917 strongly reprises 1789 replete with the soldatki replacing the sans culottes as the militant, cutting edge of the revolution.
9 One important component of Miéville’s narrative is the successful way in which he shows that class is a multi-dimensional experience that transcends narrow economic categories. He marshals stories of workers demanding respect, of responding to abuse and disrespect, of “wheelbarrow-to-canal journeys for abusive overseers,” (p. 133), and of “soldiers [who] demanded to be addressed with the respectful ‘Citizen,’ a term spreading so widely it was as if it had been ‘invented just now!’” (p. 71)
10 Although Miéville could have given Lenin’s theoretical framework developed in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism greater play—it receives a paragraph, in Chapter One, “The Prehistory of 1917”—he wisely opts to show how the practical antiwar political argument develops and is received over the year and running through the Brest-Litovsk Accord negotiated by Trotsky.
11 Chastising Gorky’s sometimes patriotic approach to the war in March 1917, Lenin demands, “All the energies of our Party, all the efforts of the class-conscious workers, must be concentrated on a persistent, persevering, all-round struggle against these prejudices.” See Letters from Afar, available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/lfafar/fourth.htm#v23pp64h-333
12 Miéville guides his readers through the circumstances of its writing – aboard the “Sealed Train” travelling through Germany en route to Sweden before eventually arriving at Petrograd’s Finland Station. In this sketch, we also come to appreciate the fantastically international makeup of that year’s Bolshevik revolutionary cohort. See p. 103ff
13 Of course, Miéville cautions his readers who use the outcomes of 1917 to argue against revolution: “It would be absurd, a ridiculous myopia, to hold up October as a simple lens through which to view the struggles of today” (p. 318). One would therefore want to argue that he has produce an adequately complex mirror through which to view the struggles of today.
14 See October, p.134f, for the part played by the soviets and conferences in the formulation of nationalist demands. More on this below.
15 Miéville is a veteran of the fissiparous politics of Anglo-American Trotskyism having been active in the British Socialist Workers Party and the International Socialist Organization.
17 John Reed (1917) Ten Days that Shook the World. Forward by Vladimir Lenin, Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/reed/1919/10days/10days/ and Alexander Rabinowitch The Bolsheviks Come to Power. Chicago: Haymarket Books 2009 (originally published in 1976). It should be noted that both briefly reference the Baku conference but fail to develop the notion of the nationalities as revolutionary subjects. With this background, one can understand why Jonathan Steele, writing in The Guardian, should applaud Miéville attention to “the Muslim issue,” see “October by China Miéville review – a brilliant retelling of the Russian Revolution,” May 17, 2017, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/17/october-china-mieville-russian-revolution.
18 Ironically, this omission will surely provide fodder for those who unfairly, and falsely, accuse one of Miéville’s heroes, Trotsky, of having failed to understand the strategic importance and potential of the peasantry.
19 Smele convincingly demonstrates the strategic place of Turkestan in the Tsar’s war machine and the colony’s resistance to forced conscription into labor battalions. He shows that it was so widespread that the entire colony was placed under martial law in July 1916. He notes that, “Kazakh leaders overcame clan rivalries to host regional assemblies that would debate and discuss strategy…” See page 8, and Chapter 1. Jonathan D. Smele The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916–1926: Ten Years That Shook the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2015
20 October, p. 316
21 October p. 320
22 Perhaps this omission may be understood in respect to the orientation of Miéville’s quarterly review of “revolutionary arts and letters,” Salvage, that “is by and for those committed to radical change, sick of capitalism and its sadisms, and sick too of the Left’s bad faith and bullshit.” [emphasis added] Available at: http://salvage.zone/about/
23 October, p. 171
24 See p.xiii, Antonio Negri Factory of Strategy: Thirty-Three Lessons on Lenin. New York: Columbia University Press 2014