China Mieville’s inspiring account of Russia’s revolution is a book for our times

June 17, 2017

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
By China Mieville
Verso, 2017
369 pages

The year 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 Mieville in October, his narrative of the Russian Revolution.

Mieville is an English socialist activist and award-winning writer of fantasy fiction and magical realism, which he calls “weird” fiction. By today’s establishment political orthodoxy, 1917 was “weird” by proving 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. Mieville says the world’s first socialist revolution matters, and deserves celebration, because “things changed once, and they might do so again”.

Mieville has a novelist’s eye for a great story. His breathless, journalistic narrative befits the dizzying pace and political drama of revolutionary upheaval. It combines 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 Mieville’s story takes in not just high politics but its grassroots ferment, where “every queue was a political forum”, waitresses refused to accept tips as demeaning and 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) on the left. These outshine the main political species to their bourgeois and landowning right — the Constitutional Democrats — whose name was as drab as their political vision.

Mieville 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). They adopted 10 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.  Mieville notes that Lenin is “easily mythologised, idolised or demonised” either as a “mass murdering monster” or a “godlike genius”.

Mieville’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. He astutely judged when “the political moment” called for “patiently explaining” or bold action, and when to toss overboard long-held Marxist verities (such as no socialism until after capitalist development). In short, when to be, as he put it, “as radical as reality”.

What also emerges strikingly from Mieville’s account is the indispensability of democracy to Lenin’s politics, the pre-Stalin Bolsheviks in general and to the revolution. From farm to factory, from soviet (councils of elected delegates) 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. More than a few times, he found himself in a minority in the party, and sometimes a minority of one on the Bolshevik Central Committee.

Mieville’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 Mieville loses little in artistic comparison, and cedes nothing in revolutionary tone, to these writers who are clearly his strong political and stylistic influences.

Mieville’s aim in the book was always storytelling first. However, more than 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.

Mieville 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 invasion and economic blockade, and imperialist-backed civil war. Above all, socialist Russia suffered from the 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. He groomed a new generation of politically undeveloped party members into a privileged bureaucratic stratum.

A political diet, rich as it was in democracy and ideals and hope in 1917, could never sustain a healthy socialist development that 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. 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 that 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. The Russian Revolution matters, Melville concludes, because “what’s at stake isn’t the interpretation just of history but of the present”.

He has noted elsewhere about the “extraordinary political upsets”, for better or worse, of our time (Brexit, Corbyn, Sanders, Trump) when “the questioning of received opinions” erupted.

The events of 1917 may have been “ultimately tragic”, but it remains “ultimately inspiring” for those who want such revolts to break in the better direction.

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