The unfinished revolution

Issue: 156

Esme Choonara

A review of China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 2017), £18.99.

There is a long-held narrative among liberal and not-so-liberal commentators that contrasts a justified libertarian revolution in Russia in February 1917 with an authoritarian Bolshevik coup in October that destroyed the chance of democracy and ushered in the horrors of Stalinism.

China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is therefore a most welcome contribution to setting the record straight about the October Revolution. Clearly taking the side of revolution and the revolutionaries, Miéville’s account of the dramatic events of 1917 hurtles the reader month by month through the advances and retreats, intrigues, debates and battles of this revolutionary year.

There is much to recommend in October. It is a brilliant read—a self-proclaimed story for the curious written with the passion, drama and occasional humour befitting to such momentous events. As with Miéville’s fiction, the sense of place is absorbing. The book opens with an explanation of the origins of St Petersburg—the epicentre of the struggle for power. But the geographical scope extends beyond the capital, charting events in Moscow, in the villages, in the trenches and across the Russian empire. Miéville has a good eye for illustrative anecdotes and for snapshots of the cultural expressions of change.

October makes clear that the revolution was not summoned by the Bolsheviks but created by mass bitterness at war, poverty and autocratic rule. The author shows how the masses interacted with, but were not controlled by, the political parties. Thousands of workers, peasants and soldiers were drawn into political argument, debate and action. Miéville keenly traces the debates, emerging institutions and organisations at the heart of the struggle—explaining arguments, sketching out key individuals and parties, following the frenetic debates that took place in the many publications of the political parties and workers’ and soldiers’ organisations.

Miéville shows that there was no parliamentary democratic alternative to the October Revolution. The February Revolution had created a highly unstable regime that was unable to solve the burning issues of bread, peace and land that had driven the masses to revolt in the first place. The choice by October was between pushing on towards workers’ power or capitulating to the spectre of right wing generals and vicious counter-revolutionaries. Miéville charts in detail the defeated coup attempt by General Kornilov in August 1917, but also draws out the growing threat from the “sadistic vigilantes” of the Black Hundreds and the other right wing forces unwilling to tolerate the revolution’s challenge to their vested interests and authority.

October includes some important contributions to our understanding of women’s participation in the revolution—not just the well-known figures but the many women integrally involved at all stages in the revolution. Miéville also records the important meetings of progressive Muslim organisations, such as the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which met in Tatarstan in April 1917. A striking passage tells of the important role of delegates from the Union of Muslim Soviets in turning back counter-revolutionary troops outside Petrograd in August.

Every account of the Russian Revolution necessarily contains political interpretation. There are therefore inevitably points where some readers of this journal may find themselves at odds with the emphasis or interpretations of Miéville’s account. In the July Days, for example, the Bolshevik leadership is shown as dithering and irrelevant in the face of the eruption of protests and discontent from rank and file soldiers and workers. He describes the Bolsheviks’ initial position as “formalised floundering” (p171) and suggests the leading Bolsheviks were dismayed at seeing protests that they did not control. However, while the July protests certainly came from below and took place against the advice of the Bolshevik party, there were sound reasons for the Bolsheviks to be wary about what they saw as a premature uprising—as Miéville himself points out, the rest of Russia lagged behind the heights of the struggle in Petrograd and in Moscow, Russia’s second city. The July Days produced merely a “desultory, somewhat pathetic demonstration” (p184).

All accounts of the Russian Revolution have to take a position on Lenin. While Miéville’s account is no hagiography, he makes clear the crucial role played by Lenin at the two key moments of the revolution—in politically rearming the Bolsheviks in April and in pushing for the October insurrection.

While Miéville records the shockwaves caused by Lenin’s ­uncompromising rejection of imperialist war and the provisional government in his April Theses, it is interesting to note his incorporation of Canadian Marxist Lars Lih’s account of Lenin’s “Letters From Afar”. These were Lenin’s statements on political strategy which he reportedly sent to the Bolsheviks in Russia after the February events, and which were a precursor to his April Theses. Miéville draws on Lih to challenge the established account of these letters being censored by the “old Bolsheviks” who were resistant to Lenin’s message. However, unlike Lih, Miéville does not put this in the context of a wider challenge to the notion that the April Theses were a break with “old Bolshevism”—an argument discussed in detail by Kevin Corr in issue 154 of this journal.

Helpfully, Lih has published the details of what was cut from Lenin’s first Letter From Afar—the only one that was published before his return—and given that passages removed include Lenin’s withering attack on those proposing a ­rapprochement with the Mensheviks and their qualified support for the provisional government, it does not seem tenable that the edits are a simple matter of toning down the language or removing outdated references as Miéville suggests. In fact Lih himself has recently argued that edits to Lenin’s letter were of political substance in that they “retrofitted” the letter to the politics of “old Bolshevism”. The partial adoption of Lih’s perspective leaves Miéville in a somewhat contradictory position at times (more specifically in April), although it also makes for some thought-provoking reading.

None of this, however, should detract from the overwhelming strengths of this work. October will undoubtedly bring the astounding and inspiring events of 100 years ago to the attention of a new generation of readers. Furthermore, these events are not presented as a mere historical curiosity or outdated idealism. As Miéville puts it at the outset: “This was Russia’s revolution, certainly, but it belonged and belongs to others, too. It could be ours. If its sentences are still unfinished, it is up to us to finish them” (p3).

Esme Choonara is a health worker and a member of the International Socialism editorial board.