What was the secret of the Russian Revolution? What lessons -- both positive and negative -- does it hold for the present day?
October: The Story of the Russian RevolutionPublisher: Verso
Length: 384 pages
Author: China Mieville
Publication date: 2017-05
The Russian Revolution has never been short of historians and interlocutors. Now, midway through the centenary of the epoch-changing insurrection, the volume of studies has amped up to an unprecedented degree. Renewed interest in the revolution stems not only from its timely centenary, but also from the fact that social conditions around the world are rapidly reverting to a scale of inequality and disenfranchisement eerily similar to that of a century ago. Whether it’s radical publishers analyzing the relevance of the revolution for present-day struggles, or mainstream publishers sensationalizing it for dollars, the Bolsheviks are back in vogue as never before.
Of all the accounts of the revolution being written for the present era, China Mieville’s is the one we need. His is the telling that will no doubt stand the test of time, for it is a telling that understands the significance of the Revolution in the broader passage of time. His is an impassioned telling, clearly on the side of the Revolution, yet not oblivious to its horrors. His is a telling that says: this is important; here are lessons; here is how the world can be changed; but we must learn from their errors as well as their successes.
“There have been a hundred years of crude, ahistorical, ignorant, bad-faith and opportunistic attacks on October . Without echoing such sneers, we must nonetheless interrogate the revolution,” Mieville writes in an afterword.
“It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.”
It’s appropriate that Verso turned to a fantasy and science fiction writer (albeit one who is active in socialist politics) to bring the Russian Revolution to life. It was always ever a fantastic, utopian undertaking -- as are all progressive visions -- propelled into reality by the grim desperation of a starving, suffering nation. Where historians and political scientists lose themselves in second-guessing facts and strategies, Mieville draws out from the revolution the undercurrent of hope, idealism and above all imagination that shaped its emergence, and tells the story with all the narrative skill of an award-winning novelist.
Mieville’s account perfectly straddles the line between academic rigour and popular accessibility. It reads more like journalistic reportage; all the more impressive for having been written a hundred years after the fact. The details are all there -- from the nitty-gitty of procedural debates and wrangling over key amendments-to-amendments-to-resolutions, to the shifting fortunes of day by day street battles. Mieville provides just enough information to accurately convey what’s going on, but never gets lost in myopic detail. He ensures the big picture -- the revolution -- stays in central focus, weaving localized detail into a grand national (even international) tapestry of revolution.
Mieville’s telling has other improvements over previous histories of the revolution. While historians of the revolution have made progress in looking at the role of gender and sexuality in the revolution, Mieville pays attention to other important and often overlooked identities. He focuses on the various Muslim political organizations, and the role they played in the broader revolution. The Russian Empire was at least ten percent Muslim at the time of the revolution, and as other scholars have noted, the Bolsheviks’ assiduous efforts at solidarity with Muslims are often unacknowledged in western histories of the revolution.
Following the February 1917 revolution, the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress held vigorous debates on women’s rights under Islam (passing resolutions affirming equality of the sexes and rejecting the compulsory wearing of the hijab); representatives of the Union of Muslim Soviets played a key role in courageously persuading Russian troops to mutiny and abandon a counter-revolutionary effort led by the right-wing General Kornilov. These and other instances reveal a diversity to the revolutionary history that is all too often overlooked.
He also keeps an eye on the revolution outside of St. Petersburg, and Moscow, and even Russia itself. Bolsheviks in Latvia played an important role in keeping the revolutionary dream alive when it seemed to be sputtering in St. Petersburg; the complex dance between Bolshevik revolution and nationalist autonomy was also played out in Finland, Ukraine, and elsewhere.
How Was It Done?
What was the secret of the revolution? For the past century this has been the Holy Grail quest of the left. Yet the answer might not be so reassuring for present-day radicals. There is no single formula for revolution (and yet there are predictable patterns); what good histories (like Mieville’s) reveal is that what counts in a revolution is adaptability: an ability to assess the shifting fortunes of the moment, and adjust one’s plans and expectations accordingly, unashamedly.
Lenin, archetypal revolutionary and leader of the Bolsheviks, may have been a fanatical, tyrannical ideologue, but one of the gifts his egotistical super-confidence lent him was the ability to unabashedly turn full-circle on a strategy without feeling the slightest strain of awkwardness or hesitation. His apparent lack of self-doubt; that ability to totally change course and not feel the need to question himself over it, was key. If egotistical self-confidence has a positive quality, it might be described as decisiveness. And if anything, Lenin was decisive.
Left to their own devices, the Bolsheviks would probably have prevaricated, hesitated, waited, and who knows whether they would eventually have made the revolution or not. The strange combination of traits possessed by a key cadre of their leadership, however -- tyrannical, iron will coupled with a profoundly pragmatic (if opportunistic) flexibility -- is what enabled Bolsheviks like Lenin and Trotsky to adapt strategy so quickly and effectively in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.
Marx and Lenin and other revolutionary theorists militate against the cult of the individual: they want their revolutions to be the product of ideas; of scientific methods; of the inexorable march of historical progress. But it is undeniable that the power of individuals is what drives revolutions, at least to some degree. Lenin was the one who determinedly raged and demanded action and insurrection, even while the rest of his own Bolshevik party leadership hesitated and awkwardly tried to censor his demanding manifestos. Without his demanding militancy, and his unswerving energy in imposing that militancy on everyone around him, it’s unlikely the revolutionaries would have ever really made their move.
Even for Lenin, the decision to strike and seize power from the weak and fledgling representative assembly that assumed governance following Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication was an about-turn. Up until near the end Lenin himself had urged caution and hesitation too, and warned against overly public displays of radical militancy. It’s the eternal watch-word of progressive movements: do we yet have the capacity to achieve our goals? Or should we wait and build capacity, before launching our strike/ manifesto/ vision/ campaign?
Lenin too was a slave to the notion of capacity. But he also had a profound sensitivity to the shifting mood of the public, and of politics. He knew when momentum was on the side of the left; when the public mood was irritated and ambivalent toward the central government; when people were just frustrated enough to give the Bolsheviks their chance; when the key threats to their revolution lacked the will and energy to organize and resist them. He knew just how far to push events, and when to push them.
This is the paradox of leftist revolutions: revolutionaries’ faith is grounded in what they hold to be empirical, scientific laws of social progress. Yet that inevitable march of progress can only be achieved by the often arbitrary fortunes and capabilities of individual human beings.
Mass Movements and the Individual
One of the secrets of revolution -- and that which renders them so mystifyingly elusive -- is that they are a delicate dance between meta and micro; large, seemingly unstoppable mass events shaped and directed by the split-second decisions and choices of single individuals. Yes, the conditions were ripe for revolution in Russia (just as they had been during the failed revolution of 1905): the demands of a country at war were grinding on the populace. There was spreading poverty and inequality. The ostentatious and flippant display of wealth by the elite one percent. Political repression. Mass organized protest movements seizing every opportunity to agitate against the regime. Terrorists striking against the state and its agents whenever possible. A proliferation of social movements, from an array of politically left (and hard right) parties to the women’s movement to the Muslim and nationalist organizations and more. Military morale was down and soldiers were poor and repressed as well, increasing the likelihood they would ignore orders they didn’t care for, such as killing their fellow Russians to protect a regime they despised. Protest marches were once again in vogue; huge, mass marches. The ice on the Neva River froze, stymying efforts by authorities to control the movements of crowds across the city’s rivers and bridges. And by October, when the Bolsheviks struck and seized power, there were guns everywhere: citizen militias organized and armed to the hilt.
The meta conditions were all there.
But the Russian Revolution also comes across as a comedy of errors, any one of which might have scuttled the revolution had not quick-thinking individuals taken the initiative to move the revolution forward. The revolution hinged on countless single moments and individual decisions. Lenin gives up trying to communicate from his hideout, and returns to the scene of the action at the last moment to personally direct events, in violation of the orders of the party’s Central Committee; this decision is key to ensuring the militants make their move. The revolutionary commissar Osvald Denis receives orders from revolutionary headquarters (where conciliatory-minded leaders are temporarily in charge) to dismantle the barricades he and his forces have erected against the government and to stand down; he refuses (two hours later Lenin arrives at headquarters and the revolution is back on).
All of Lenin’s hair-raising, fluke-ish escapes from right-wing government troops that are hunting him (a disguised Lenin spent one long night sheltering from the rain with a Cossack who was hunting him). All of his night-long, intense debates with his other more conciliatory-minded fellow Central Committee members, frenetically persuading them to take the final step and seize power from the weakened government; if his energy had flagged and he’d given up on any one of these occasions, he might have never convinced the necessary people of the urgency of revolution.
If the hard-right had fought back harder, sooner, perhaps they could have crushed the left; their uncertainty and bewilderment at the pace of events, and their lack of realistic analyses, left them blundering about as more quick-witted actors like Lenin outpaced them. Even the actions of that very first Cossack who refused an order to fire on a crowd of protesters, shattering the years of repressed terror and emboldening the masses, played a pivotal -- perhaps the pivotal -- role in setting the course toward revolution. Revolutions are made possible by a confluence of countless individual actions; the failure of any one of which might be the lynchpin that defuses the revolution’s potential.
Given all this, it is remarkable when revolutions actually occur. Inertia tends to outmanoeuvre social movements; and inertia tends to side with the forces of reaction and power and privilege. Compare similar moments in history: the failed Easter Rising in Ireland, foiled when one revolutionary lost heart and refused to send notice to volunteers throughout the country to rise at the appointed time. The failed 1905 revolution in Russia, that started with such potential but collapsed into repression because it lacked organization and initiative.
The fall of Chilean leftist president Salvador Allende to the American-engineered coup led by the autocratic fascist Augusto Pinochet, which might have been foiled had Allende taken coup warnings seriously and begun arming citizen militias earlier (the widespread arming of citizen and worker militias in Russia is what helped foil the inevitable right-wing counter-insurrection). If the German socialists had struck first to seize power as the Weimar Republic crumbled, perhaps they could have crushed the Nazis and forestalled World War II; instead the Nazis seized the initiative and the rest is history.
The lesson works both ways. Individual decisions and actions can destroy revolutions as surely as they can make them. As Lenin’s health failed, he grew wary of one of his comrades -- Joseph Stalin. He warned his colleagues they needed to remove Stalin from his growing position of power. His colleagues didn’t take his warnings seriously; he died before he could act on them.
The rest is history.
Decisions -- individual decisions -- made in the heat of the moment matter. They make or break revolutions, and the fate of nations. Mieville notes that the less radical left-Mensheviks abandoned the Bolshevik regime in its early days -- had they not, they might have provided an important and conciliatory counter-weight to the ideological militancy of those like Lenin and Trotsky who wound up dominating the new regime. The subsequent civil war might have been avoided; revolutionary Russia’s relations with the west might have turned out entirely differently too.
“October is still ground zero for arguments about fundamental, radical social change. Its degradation was not a given, was not written in any stars,” writes Mieville in his afterword.
The tension between individual agency and larger social processes is a complex one. Certainly, revolutionaries can work to increase their likelihood of success. Without any doubt, the Bolsheviks were a well-organized, well-disciplined party. They had their factions, but their shared experiences of exile and repression had lent them all a sense of common purpose that transcended individual agendas, as well as a sense of grim realism that made them more prone to commit themselves to daring action (they knew they had little to lose; they’d all suffered brutal loss already and knew how easily it could happen again if they did nothing). They were dedicated; willing to work those round-the-clock shifts organizing and propagandizing and debating and agitating.
The superior organization of a small group can matter more than the blundering confusion of a powerful army, and the Bolsheviks proved it. If they hadn’t been so well organized, disciplined and hard-working, the strategies of their leaders would also have come to nought. But those strategies mattered very much too.
Mieville concludes his story in October 1917, shortly after the Bolsheviks finally seize power. It is the denouement toward which all the action in the book has been leading. But to conclude here is always to take a risk, because whatever idealism was evinced by the Bolsheviks during their quest to attain power, they are judged on the historical record of what they did with that power after they attained it. The harsh years of civil war, the crushing of dissent within the new Bolshevik state, the eventual drift into dictatorship under Stalin; what part does -- or should -- these less-than-idealistic outcomes play in the telling of the revolutionary story?
“Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography -- and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes,” writes Mieville in his afterword.
He’s right. And to his credit, he does acknowledge and enumerate some of those mistakes in his afterword. But his focus is on the build-up and revolution itself. While some might argue that you cannot separate the revolution’s failures from its successes, it’s also worth considering that this standard is not normally applied to other national histories. To what extent, for instance, do we tie the American Revolution and its pivotal moments in 1776 with the slaughter of the Civil War a few decades later? Must they inevitably be tied together? How about the link between 1776 and the Great Depression of the early 20th century? Or the presidency of Donald Trump? Is his election an inevitable indictment of the aspirations of the revolutionary founders?
No, others would argue. The fate of revolutions are not any more inevitable than their coming into being. This too is one of the lessons of Mieville’s October. “Nothing is given,” he writes. The revolution “need not always be followed by night.” Revolutions should not be judged -- at least not wholly -- on what is made of them, but rather on the ideas and actions that make them.
Mieville offers a realistic yet aspirational telling of the revolution. It’s telling that he refers to it as the “first socialist revolution” -- the implication is that the number will inevitably grow, just as the numbers of democratic revolutions grew in centuries past, after modern democracy’s first awkward and stumbling efforts.
“(I)t has been a long century, a long dusk of spite and cruelty, the excrescence and essence of its time. Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all. It would be equally absurd to say that there is nothing we can learn from the revolution. To deny that the sumerki [dusk] of October can be ours, and that it need not always be followed by night.”